One year later …
Roughly one year ago, I picked up my son from his therapy center in Paducah, Ky., and began a six-hour journey across Kentucky in a small snowstorm. I was exhausted, jet lagged from having just recently returned from an international trip, and dealing with a bad case of asthma. Yet, go we went.
It would take us a night’s rest and a few extra hours to arrive in Huntington, W.Va., and Beverly Hills UMC to meet the people and visit the church where we would be appointed for the first time. That moment marked a new period in my family’s life, leaving what we had known to go into the unknown of a familiar state with a desire to help share the love of Christ.
I’ve been reflecting on that moment for a few days, and on how time seems to progress quickly. At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on where I’ve been, what is taking place, and where things are moving.
For one, I’ve been constantly reminded how the learning curve is steep when you move into a new community. You might have familiarity with a community, town, or state based upon prior history, but that can only take you so far. Remembering what something was like in the past is important, but it can cloud one’s thinking about the situation in front of them. At times, I have found myself in grief for what West Virginia was when I left in 2003 and the condition I have found it in since returning. No amount of following news coverage, elections, or visiting family can adequately prepare you for the vast difference that comes with communities in decline and how it affects our view and relationships with one another.
Within that, though, I have been reminded constantly how much my life, and ministry, has reflected the story of Jonah. To paraphrase, Jonah is the story of a prophet who felt a call to share the message of God’s redeeming love, yet tried to do anything but that work. I had always felt that as I moved from the world of journalism to the ministry. As a young man, I had felt the call to do something more with my life, but ran from it because I loved (and still do) writing and sharing stories about people. What I am recognizing is how much I ran from being back home in West Virginia. I always had people, especially in churches that I had served in Kentucky, tell me that I would go back to West Virginia. I still remember one beloved saint tell me that she thought I would go to West Virginia after being ordained. I didn’t want to go back, because I thought it would be too difficult.
Since returning, I have felt what I often encourage congregations to experience – a broken heart moment. A broken heart moment is when you feel deep grief and compassion for a people, community, or situation, and because of it, you know that there is nothing else that you can do but to serve and help. It is often in those places where we find our passion for serving and where God is leading us to be a voice of hope in the wilderness of pain for people. I have felt this broken heart, time and time again, for the state, my community, and the people of Appalachia.
Yet, I have felt powerless at times to help. Perhaps it is become I have felt overwhelmed by the transition from one conference to the next, or even just a recognition of the anxieties that, unfortunately, have stagnated our mission and movement. Feeling powerless is not a bad thing. It often allows the deeper work of God’s redeeming love to work in us and through us to lead and experience transformative change.
When we feel powerless, prayer is important. On the first Sunday of each month, at 9 a.m., I have encouraged people to come alongside me in the sanctuary to pray for our church, community, mission, and to hear from God of how we can be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting community. These have been important times of prayer for me, even if I have been the only one to participate. I’ve let out a lot of grief and pain in those moments for a community that was and to pray for what could be. I pray for others to join me on March 7.
One year later, though, I do believe the decision was right. We were made to be back home and to lead in the hills of West Virginia. Looking back, I cannot imagine anywhere else I want to be, and I cannot wait to see where God will lead us moving forward.