I spent the past week in a region that I have come to love and appreciate deeply over the past four years: Appalachia. Through a program called the Appalachian Experience, 500 SJU students travel to Appalachia over their spring break, in order to serve and learn with the communities there. There are over 17 sites across Virgina, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina. This year, I traveled to the Alleghany Highlands, and more specifically the town of Clifton Forge, Virginia.
I had been on two trips to Appalachia before, so I thought I knew what to expect. I thought I knew that I would meet incredible people from an incredibly kind and loving small town. I thought I knew that I would most likely splatter paint over every single article of clothing that I brought to the trip. I thought I knew that I would get to know 25 new people from my university. I thought I knew what to expect.
What I didn’t know, was that this trip would continually break my heart into a thousand tiny pieces and put it back together again. What I didn’t know, was that I would lose the urge to touch my phone and check on what my friends were doing back home. What I didn’t know, was that this trip would lead me to persistently question the larger social justice issues in regards to our environment, economy, and the way that we perceive the people who live in this region. What I didn’t know, was that the pure faith and love that this community has for God and others would lead me to question my own faith, and what I value in my life. As a senior, I ignorantly believed I had seen it all through my previous trips to Appalachia. I thought that I’d experience nothing new.
The town of Clifton Forge sits in the Roanoke region of the USA, and the economy relies primarily on the WESTVACO Paper Mill. We learned that many people move away from Clifton Forge to attend college and find employment. Because of this knowledge, I giggled about when I first read their town motto: Scenic. Busy. Friendly. But as our week went on, I began to realize that they could not have had a more fitting motto.
Clifton Forge has some of the most beautiful and breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen in my life. I have never understood when people have told me that nature makes them feel closer to God. But sitting alone one day in the middle of our week, I had a moment. We had just finished work for the day, and the sun was sitting over our house on the hill. Exhausted, I had found a grassy spot on the hill and was looking out over the mountains. It suddenly hit me that all of this had to have been planned by someone…something. The way that the light hit the mountains and warmed my face was nothing short of a blessing and I was overcome with emotion.
Boy, did they keep us busy during our week in Clifton Forge. Each day, the incredible people of the town who had helped plan our stay made sure that we were fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Our full work day was from 9-4:30, and we often had activities or reflections planned for our evenings. At the end of our days, we were emotionally and physically exhausted. Each night, I went to bed with a million questions in my head, and often fell asleep replaying my day and thinking about all that I had experienced.
The people of Clifton Forge are special. I could even say that they’re magical. There are no words adequate enough to describe the overwhelming kindness and hospitality that we experienced. Each and every person that we met over the course of our week got to know us on a deep level, and asked us questions about our lives, our values, and our deepest beliefs. When it came time to get on our vans and leave Clifton Forge, there was not one dry eye in the Church that morning.
I am so thankful that I decided to travel to the Appalachian region one last time. My experiences in this region have touched my life in ways I had never imagined.
Photo credit: Kathy McGee