For many people, the word “pilgrimage” evokes contemplative journeys to exotic holy places, such as Jerusalem or the Taize community in France. But pilgrimages also can be educational journeys, and the “holy” can be found wherever we look to see God’s presence in the world.
Last May, I joined 14 other seminarians on a cross-cultural trip to West Virginia as part of a class studying art, energy, education and religion in Appalachia. This was not a mission trip, but rather an educational ministry trip: We went to learn about another culture, listen to the stories of the people we encountered and discover their ministries. It was a different kind of pilgrimage.
For me, it was a personal pilgrimage for two reasons. First, I have a particular interest in the connection between art and the Spirit, and the trip was led by the worship and liturgy professor at Drew Theological Seminary. Second, it was a trip back to my roots: I was born at the West Virginia University hospital in Morgantown while my parents were students there.
One sight that connected past and present was the river running through Morgantown. My parents used to talk about how it ran behind the house they lived in during the 1960s; about how it had so much iron in the water, I didn’t need to drink a fortified formula; and how a chemical spill once turned the water yellow and foul-smelling.
Driving into the state capital of Charleston with my fellow pilgrims last May, we brought bottled water because a coal-processing chemical had leaked into the Elk River, contaminating the city’s water supply, in January. Even five months later, it was unclear whether the water was safe to drink.
I discovered that going on a pilgrimage is incarnational, because we do it “in the flesh,” using all our senses.
With our ears, we heard the sounds of Appalachian music at an arts festival in Charleston.
Among the many sights for our eyes was the handiwork of one of the few remaining glassblowers in West Virginia, where making glass once was a booming industry.
Our senses of smell and taste were stimulated through many opportunities to break bread together, often at churches or people’s homes.
A particularly fun physical experience, after time in the hot sun, was plunging into a cold mountain swimming hole.
My pilgrimage also was incarnational because we went as people meeting other people instead of studying them in textbooks. We heard and told a lot of stories. Just traveling within our group was a cross-cultural experience, as it included students of various ages, races and career backgrounds hailing from six countries, at least five denominations and two seminaries.
The prophet who probably made the biggest impression on our group was a 23-year-old environmental activist named Junior Walk. When he was 13, his family moved from the head of a “holler” closer to town. Soon, they noticed the water coming out of the tap smelled bad and was blood-red. It turns out, when they “wash” coal to make it more useable, they produce a byproduct called slurry. Sometimes, they dump it down abandoned coal mines. In this case, it cracked the aquifer underground and got into the family’s well; when Junior was 17, the family finally got on municipal water. Other times, the coal companies store the slurry in earthen dams. The largest such dam in the Western Hemisphere holds 7.8 billion gallons of this slurry and sits a mile above his parents’ house.
When he graduated high school, Junior was accepted to an art school in Pennsylvania, but he didn’t have the money to go to college. He took a job at the Elk Run Coal Prep Plant, but he quit after 6 months. He saw what poor health his dad was in at age 49 after working there for 15 years.
Junior got a security job at a strip mine, but within a week, he said, “I felt like I had blood on my hands for being part of the system that was poisoning the people living next to it.”
So Junior began working with Keepers of the Mountain Foundation, lobbying and assisting lawsuits opposed to mountaintop mining and even locking himself to mining equipment and getting arrested. He took us for a walk to the top of a mountain ridge to see the mountains that have been destroyed.
At the other end of the age spectrum, we met a 90-year-old hunter and trainer of “coon” hounds who also was a water diviner (using a stick to locate water for wells) and retired school janitor. The family compound where he lived didn’t look like much by Upper Montclair standards, but he had managed to provide for three generations of his family living there. Visiting him led to conversation afterward about what poverty really is, and what it means to have enough.
Another interesting prophet we encountered was Wolfgang Flor, who lives with his wife Maria in a fantastic house he built literally upon a rock in the West Virginia woods. German refugees after World War II, both were artists – he a worker of wood and bronze, she a stained-glass artist – and committed to living as simply as possible.
Throughout our journey, we learned how stories of people from other cultures differ – and intersect; how we all are connected and part of the gospel story we are committed to telling and living. I was inspired by people’s love for West Virginia, whether their home by birth or adoption; their resilience despite sometimes trying circumstances; and their dedication to making it a better place, whether fighting mountaintop removal or creating art or planting community gardens.
And I learned that prophets come in many shapes and sizes – a reminder that we, too, may be called upon to be prophetic, wherever we find ourselves.