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You’re going to want to discuss this one – it’s from NCR(eporter), and it’s a rather startling, honest reflection on a year spent working with the Christian Appalachian Project in eastern Kentucky.

(Comments closed, though, ’til Wednesday night. You know how it is. Control freak here.)

The writer spent a year volunteering, and came away with some uncomfortable impressions. First, that the "war on poverty" had created a culture of dependency among the people whom she knew, a culture that was deep and strong, forty years on.

She also ends up feeling ambivalent about CAP itself, wondering why family members weren’t doing for their elderly members what it had fallen to CAP volunteers to do, and concluding that the whole thing was piecemeal and couldn’t really solve anything.

But after a year there, I became convinced that the Christian Appalachian Project is not going to change anyone’s life, and in fact in some cases it will only perpetuate dependence and poverty. Instead of somebody like me teaching GED, what Kentucky needs is better schools. Instead of employment with the Christian Appalachian Project, Kentuckians need more job opportunities and improvement in those jobs that are already available. Kentucky needs more people who are appalled at mountaintop removal, the successor to strip mining (although much worse), rather than people who seem to feel they are helpless to do anything about it.

Some have called Kentucky the Third World of the United States, and in many ways it is. The state is rich in natural resources that are being removed and are benefiting others, not the local people. The people here are given meager government aid to keep them quiet, and they, like people we have seen in poor countries, believe that they can do nothing to change their situation.

Nor can Christian Appalachian Project volunteers. Only the people of Kentucky themselves can change things, and if the organization gets involved, it becomes that dirty word, “political.” Some donors will probably stop giving money if the volunteers and their participants start marching to Frankfort to protest the poor schools, the roads that are constantly being destroyed by overloaded coal trucks, the sludge from the mountaintop removals that poisons their rivers and destroys their homes.

Once again we are discovering what we found in Mexico: It is the people themselves who must change things. Kentuckians must be upset enough to want to change their own lives.

One of the things that struck me when I came here to Kentucky was how lacking in dreams and ambitions the people of Kentucky are. It is almost as if the hills limit their views of the world as well as their own horizons. Now there is something very good about being willing to live simply and without desire for material gain. But it is sad to see so much unused talent, so much that is so good lost.

As in Third World countries, the local religious groups tend to support a quiescent lifestyle. The vast majority of people are believers, going to a variety of churches, most of which are of an evangelical, Pentecostal or fundamentalist sort. They believe that God has a plan and provides for everything. I have known people who would not even look for jobs, trusting that God will make one available when and if the time is right. Others expect God to provide a home for them, as if God is a real estate agent. Whatever happens, they believe, is God’s plan. This has the effect that people do not strive to change or improve, only to accept.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I spent six weeks volunteering in Harlan. It was an eye-opener, and to tell the truth, some of my impressions were echoed in this article. I really didn’t understand why poverty, for so many we encountered, seem to require living amid trash. We had several elderly people whom we helped (on the side -our main project was running a VBS) who had family in the area, but had been essentially abandoned by them. I didn’t get it.

But it was complex – 80% unemployment will do that to you. The part of this piece that doesn’t resonate with me is what seems like a fairly slashing arrogance towards the East Kentucky natives who aren’t as smart or spiritually sophisticated as the writer. But that’s a part of the culture down there, as well – the church that hosted the volunteers was pastored by a lovely old Irishman, but the congregation was mostly Yankee transplants – the town’s physicians, lawyers, and so on – who were none too pleased when an elderly couple came in from the country, curious to see what this Catholic business was all about. The talk amid the parishioners mostly concerned their smell.  That one, I’ve never forgotten.

I don’t argue with every jot of this article, for there is truth in it – but what are the sources of fatalism? Of parochialism? I drive through Kentucky all the time. I have family connections there. I have good friends there – it is a state that is a combination of high sophistication and this dire poverty. I am not so sure what to make of it all the time myself.

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