Over nine generations of my family have been Appalachian. We were Appalachian even before we knew what Appalachia was. A great scholar from Berea, Kentucky, Loyal Jones has summarized what he identified as “Appalachian Values.” This list has become often used to describe the people here, and I share it as a beginning point:
- Strong religious beliefs
- Individualism, self-reliance, and pride
- Neighborliness and hospitality
- Strong sense of family
- Personalism–to relate well (be tolerant, respectful) with others; not to confront or offend
- Love of place
- Sense of beauty
- Sense of humor
- Strong sense of patriotism
- Strong work ethic
Many of these I believe to be current still. Yet there is a noticeable shift in recent years to something more akin to the larger culture of 21st century North American values. Diversity is happening, and a down-draft in population is occurring as well. So what was uniquely celebrated as Appalachian Values in the 1970s when Jones made this list is probably changed just by demographic changes that have happened. Access to broader cultural influences have had their effect.
Yet I also notice that in the midst of the economic despair that often besets the people in central appalachia, there is a deep longing for God and a hopefulness that prayer will change things. The number of people who believe is diminishing, and the fervor of Appalachian churches is changing as well, yet there remains a general sense that people honor the place of God and God’s role in changing their lives. This foundation for spirituality is not uniquely Appalachian, but perhaps part of the American sense of optimism that has pervaded our culture for a couple hundred years.
I believe prayer is the beginning point for an Appalachian spirituality. Prayer comes out of the closet when major events happen like roof falls in the mines, and plant closings. Even on a personal level, communities are willing to come together to pray for one of their own who is in need, especially for medical issues, or long spells of bad luck. A lot of Appalachians pray freely, not concerned about what words they’re saying, but just emoting verbally as they lift up their voices to the heavens.
My wife’s home church practices concert prayer. That is when everyone prays out loud at the same time. It is a little unnerving the first time you experience it, but it touches deeply when you hear the depth of emotion that flows out of people in those settings. Language is not as important as cadence and it can become something of an emotional river flowing together out of several streams of prayer. And it is democratic. Everyone who participates is equal. There might be a leader who signals when to slow it down and bring it to a close, but in the midst of the cacophony of prayer, it is easy to get lost in your own soul’s expression of concern for self and others. It is a witness that believers give of faith in a God who will move when the faithful pray.
Prayer that is read, and prayer that is led by an educated pastor in a priestly role is frowned upon in such communities. Mistrust exists between the people of Appalachia and those who come touting their education and authority. Authority is given by the community to those who prove themselves worthy.
The downside of this is that having very little criteria in place to help them decide if someone is worthy, Appalachians depend highly upon relationships, ancestry, and familiarity to gauge worthiness. So, someone who may be an unmitigated huckster can gain authority just because his parents are known, or her husband was well-esteemed. I know someone who was racist until during a roof fall in a mine a black man pulled large rocks off him, saving his life. Afterward, he thought differently about this person, although he remained suspicious of others of like racial identity who were unrelated.
This even applies toward biblical scholarship. Appalachians tend not to care so much what one knows. Degrees in divinity, knowledge of ancient biblical languages, and even years of experience in pastoral roles are not as important as whether one has won authority through relational ministry. This can be positively stated by saying most Appalachian people prefer an incarnational presence in their teachers and preachers. As Jeff Foxworthy has noted, in the redneck definition of the word “Sensuous:” “Since you was here for me and my family when papa died, we’ll come to your preaching.” [apologies to the greatest redneck in America!]
Participatory prayer, democratic leadership, and high regard towards those we know mark Appalachia spirituality. Commonalities exist with other cultural and ethnic groups, to be sure. But these are evident in the mountains.
Part two to come.