During these difficult days when every news cycle brings more disappointing proof that we can’t expect our government to solve this nation’s problems, I am glad that I had the opportunity to spend a week helping the good people of Dunlow, West Virginia.
For years I have been involved in a non-profit called The Center for FaithJustice, whose mission is to provide service opportunities for young adults, and connect those experiences with Catholic social justice teaching. The Center runs the “Worx” programs, and the name “Worx” comes from the New Testament, “Faith without works is dead”. It’s not enough to say you’re a Christian, you must practice what you preach to truly emulate Christ.
Though it is a faith-based non-profit, students do not have to be Catholic to participate, and the idea is not just to do service, but to develop “servant leaders” – people who will have some understanding of the more complex social justice issues that we face in this country and make service a part of their DNA for the rest of their lives. For those of you who are not Catholic, the Catholic Church has some powerful teachings about social justice, and Pope Francis has been far more vocal than his predecessors in articulating them.
There are JusticeWorx service weeks in Trenton, Philadelphia, and three locations in Appalachia. Students are placed into work or service groups and generally go to the same service site every day, then in the evening they are placed in a family group made up of other service teams so that they can share their experiences, and discuss what challenges they faced as well as the “gifts” of the day. Each group has a leader who facilitates the discussion – either an adult volunteer like myself or my daughter Grace, or a LeaderWorx member who are college students who are paid a stipend and spend the summer working with the Worx programs.
This was my second trip to Dunlow, West Virginia, a tiny town in southwestern West Virginia, that is isolated by its geography and that has never recovered since the coal mine shut down. Bill and Addie Likens started an outreach program in Dunlow years ago to help those who haven’t been able to find work, and The Center has been working with Bill and Addie for years, helping them with their monthly Food Pantry as well as various construction projects. Over the years their reach has grown, so that this past week 180 families were supplied with groceries as well as a hot meal and a chance to “shop” at the clothing pantry.
Addie is the kind of person who never seems to lose her patience or her cool. Normally, she runs the monthly Food Pantry with about 10 local volunteers. I honestly don’t know how they do it because it takes a village. There were about 25 of us helping her this past week, and the tasks were endless. Clothing needed to be emptied out of trailers and sorted, cans and food staples and produce unloaded and sorted into boxes and bags. Then the day of the Food Pantry, a hot lunch of spaghetti (18 pounds!), garlic bread (dozens of loaves!), salad (200 individual portions!), brownies and other desserts all had to be prepared and served to the families who started arriving before 11 am. After lunch, we helped Addie with registration and pulling the correct boxes of food for each family, which is determined by the number of people (small, medium, or large); seniors and school age children get additional goodies like milk and eggs. Most families needed our help carrying out the boxes of food, and this process continued from 1 pm to well past 4 pm.
The best part of the week is getting to know the people we served. Overwhelmingly, the folks coming to the food pantry were so appreciative and kind, and many of them traveled a good distance to get there. We were told that some would come and take stacks of clothes because they don’t have washing machines or even running water in their homes so they just keep wearing dirty clothes until they can’t stand wearing them anymore. One little girl about the age of three was wearing nothing by a diaper.
In addition to the food pantry, Bill always has a few construction projects going, and this time a repossessed house was getting renovated so that a young family could live in it. The house was purchased with a donation, and we had the pleasure of meeting the young family who would be living in it. Our team did everything from putting vinyl siding up to digging a ditch for plumbing to building supports to hold up the deck. Brady, the father of the family who will be living in the house, spent much of the week with us, helping with the build, and we also had the joy of meeting his young family.
Our JusticeWorx group was comprised of 48 students from two Catholic high schools and 11 adult leaders. I have never been so impressed with a group of teenagers – they did whatever was asked of them and did it with grace and adorable humor. If these teens represent even a small portion of the generation that is to come, there is good reason to believe that our country will eventually be OK.
The last time that I made the trip to Dunlow, a team worked on rebuilding a porch for a family that included two teenagers, Will and Gail. Will loved having a group of fellow teens working at his house every day, and our teens quickly grew attached to him and Gail. That experience was a life-changing one for Will, and this past week when we got to our new work site, Will was there helping. I didn’t recognize him – he had changed so much. He was happy, healthy, confident – and told me that he had been volunteering to help Bill and Addie, along with Gail, ever since we had helped his family.
This ultimately is what the Center and the Worx programs try to achieve. It’s not just about a week of service – anyone can do that. It’s about putting a human face and story to a statistic. It’s about personal transformation and learning to see beyond the end of your own nose. It’s about trying to figure out what can be done in the long term to help those who need our help.
For me, it’s also a reminder of how much I have in the way of stuff and choice and privilege. These good people of Dunlow may have been forgotten by the government and by most of America, but I don’t think any of us who made the trip to Dunlow will ever forget them.
To learn more about The Center for FaithJustice, go to: http://www.faithjustice.org/