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Appalachian Spirituality: “Self-Reliance as Gospel”


This blog series on Appalachian Spirituality is a mixture of my personal religious upbringing tethered to reflections made on Appalachian culture in Loyal Jones’ book, Appalachian Values (1994).

I remember being a kid sitting on the makeshift porch of my great-grandparent’s trailer perched atop the country hill that had been family owned for generations. The smell of gasoline and the din of a car’s engine screaming from my great-uncle’s adjacent garage. The trailer was overshadowed by an abandoned country house that had once been a home for my country ancestors. On this day, it was no longer stately or conducive to go inside.  The dilapidated manor now had grey paint peeling off the side, a hoarded front porch that served as a catch all for family treasures (another man’s junk), and was accented by a junked up front lawn with a chipped up concrete sidewalk slowly being consumed by the untrimmed grass.

I stared at that house for hours throughout my childhood as my grandfather told countless stories. His contentment in his single-wide trailer in the shadow of this eroding country structure puzzled me. I remember asking myself, “Who was the first person in my family to decide not to live in the house?” My little mind could not fathom the juxtaposition of a crammed trailer to a multi-roomed country home. The decision to forgo the home for a trailer did not sit well with me. I was always confused when I looked at it.

The house has since been razed but the trailer remains. The trailer is now in a state of disrepair and my great-grandparents have long since passed away. My great-aunt resides in the remaining trailer. The garage is now gone. The other trailers on that country hill are gone. But that single-wide trailer with the makeshift porch still remains. Is this a parable to failure? Downsizing? Giving up? In reality, each of those are a part of the parable but they are not the entire story.

That single-wide trailer was my great-grandparent’s home. What looked like a shack to me had been purchased with their own money. They had saved up for it. The porch had been built to make their trailer entrance more inviting. That makeshift porch was a place for hours of stories. The house across the way served less as a juxtaposition and more as an Ebenezer to the faithfulness of family. House or trailer…the very country hill itself was of great pride to my family.

Pride is mostly a feeling of not wanting to be beholding to other people. We are inclined to try to do things for ourselves, find our way without asking directions when we are lost on the road, or suffer through when we are in need. We don’t like to ask others for help. The value of independence and self-reliance, and our pride, is often stronger than desire or need. (Jones 1994, Kindle Locations 139-141)

I’ve struggled with the inner wrestling that front porch afforded me for most of my life—the contentment of a trailer porch when a country manor is just off in the distance. I once heard that the sin of Adam and Eve was not so much disobedience (originally) as it was pride. Pride manifested in their not “wanting to be beholding” to God. My lack of contentment is quintessential Appalachian. My constant allowance of life’s circumstances to determine my joy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once declared, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” It is only through death that one experiences resurrection. Why do I struggle to daily understand grace? The answer is that grace invites me to die. Die to my pride…my ego…my striving…my self-reliance. The gospel is not good news because it makes bad people good. It’s good because it makes dead people alive. It makes makeshift porches the site of deep, inner contentment. The good news is that self-reliance is not gospel. I don’t need to control my country perch to make life meaningful. The gift of others, gathered around story, makes even a ramshackle porch a sacred space.

The life of that country hill was not aspirations for a renovated country home. It was an elderly man telling life stories while sitting on his makeshift porch. In memory of my beloved Granddaddy Joe (Joseph Paul Dean Sr.), I wrote the following poem a few years ago. His was an Appalachian life lived well—hard but good.

Stories and jingles,
annoying at times but now missed and haunting,
contain a life of a man who fought in World War II,
with melody and rhyme.

A song and a story were his biographical gift.
Full of laughter, gore, and love,
one man’s slight exaggerations,
who single handedly won the Battle of the Bulge.

What if through these verbal journeys,
though far-fetched they may be,
did we encounter his reality,
that bridged truth and myth as one?

What if his reality,
was not the changing tale,
but sharing with his grandchildren,
the truth that he cared?

-“Granddaddy Joe”


Next Post: “Hospitality as Godliness” 


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