Around what seemed like the thousandth turn on the road that ends in Harlan, Kentucky, my alternative spring break family found an extraordinary group. The Chapel on Calvary Hill welcomed us to their Sunday night service, where I met two women who managed to shape my Appalachian service experience in a way I never imagined. On our first night of a six day adventure to understand and serve this unique community in rural Kentucky with a Christian volunteer group called COAP (Christian Outreach with Appalachian People, Inc.), we were geared up to spend our spring break making home repairs and assisting this community in any way we could. The Chapel was a first stop, and we didn’t know what to expect. After my group (rather conspicuously) split up to infiltrate the dozen members of the congregation, we found ourselves sitting next to a pair of smiling ladies who eyed us curiously. I greeted them and they smiled and introduced themselves. As awkward silence stretched between us like a canyon filling up with all the cultural differences between us, one lady began to search through her purse, revealing a small handful of white candies. She extended them to me and I was so flustered, I let her put six Lifesavers into my open palm without a word. I sheepishly gave three to my group member who sat beside me, and slipped the rest into my pocket as the preacher directed us all to our hymnals. I mouthed a silent “thank you” to the lady; she just smiled.
Throughout the trip, those three little lifesavers became a symbol of the role that faith plays in this community. This congregation sees thousands of volunteers like us come and go every year, people from all over the world who have preconceived notions about the history, culture, and quality of life here in Appalachia. Thousands who think them poor, backwards, ignorant; who come to pity them and give them charity. And they had no evidence that we were any different, and this lady, this community offered us what they had when I was here to give to them.
This encounter, and what followed in that church, would frame the conversations I had with the carpenters at COAP, the checkers at the grocery store, and with my group members in reflections. This small community church is a place where fears are voiced and tears shed. A place where all are familiar and equal, where young people in their midst represented a chance to appeal for Jesus and a chance to teach us a lesson about real charity. They sang songs that to me seemed hopeless and depressing, but they could only see and feel the distant goal of going home to their Lord in heaven.
In this foreign place, a place where I expected to find darkness and poverty, I found a complex and hopeful community, an organism not waiting with open palms to be helped but one that actively helped and served itself. It was fitting that this lady would offer me Lifesavers. Not only did she upset the balance of who was helping and serving whom, she illustrated the most important fact of all. She held all the lifesavers, the life preserving force of community, and we were there only to draw it out and bear witness to it. In that chapel I learned a lesson about giving humbly and accepting graciously, that no matter what, I will always have something to give.