Fear and anger in Appalachia — just like everywhere else

by Gerry Roll, Kentucky Lantern

Recently, an eclectic group of artists from around the Appalachian region clashed with a small group of locals at Pine Mountain Settlement School in the community of Bledsoe in Harlan County. I wasn’t there, but after hearing from others who were, that’s a somewhat gentle description. Words like “mob of white supremacists” and “LGBTQ activists” have been used by both sides and by outsiders reporting on what happened to describe what is actually two groups of people who know very little about each other.

Appalachian people are a complicated and diverse group with an unwavering love of place. The Waymakers Collective comprises people from the region who use multiple forms of expression to help all of us know and understand each other, ourselves, our history, and our stories through art. The Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, where I work, supports many of these same artists to bring their gifts to communities where they are loved and honored by local people for their ability to bring color and life where some see only darkness and despair.  We’re grateful to have them as partners in our work.

One of the people from Bledsoe, a community with a deep connection to the settlement school, described the group as about nine people, including four local preachers and four women, with a deeply seeded faith in God and Jesus. Not unlike multitudes of others across this region, their fundamental Christian beliefs are rooted in generations of learning about a God who loves everyone but forgives those who accept and follow his word as sacrosanct, never to be questioned.

I don’t have a personal relationship with any of them, but my experience says their faith includes an element of the “fear of God” for those who stray or don’t defend his word. These are the people who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and offer shelter and hope to many people in despair across our region. We are grateful to have them doing this work in communities where it is desperately needed.

During their retreat at Pine Mountain, Waymakers placed a traditional Hindu symbol in the settlement school’s chapel. Community members showed up to make them take it down. Social media has run amok with details of what happened from the perspective of those who were directly involved and from those who weren’t even there, sharing declarations of solidarity across both groups.

Through it all, one thing is clear. Just like the rest of our nation, our beloved rural Appalachian communities and our people are grappling with the turmoil of political division, racial reckoning, feelings of historical persecution, and economic uncertainty.

Both of these groups have expressed fear and anger. The Waymakers feared for their personal safety and are angry for feeling bullied into leaving their retreat. The citizens are angry because they felt sacred space had been desecrated and they fear reprisal from God and their peers for not defending it. It doesn’t really matter if we think any of these emotions are rational or valid, they’re real. And wherever they come from, as humans we are all wired to fear the unknown, the things we don’t understand, and what we can’t control.

In many ways, our work at the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky is about managing those fears. We bring tools and resources to people in our communities to help all of us overcome barriers to understanding. We do this by creating spaces where people who may not all think the same way can have an opportunity to talk to each other, reframing situations and conversations in ways that allow us to hear and see one another as humans who share a desire to live and thrive in the places we all love. We offer space and facilitation for tough conversations, or grants for organizations, churches and events that bring people from all walks of life together with food, art, or other activities that promote camaraderie and goodwill. We are structured as a network of local boards connected to local communities doing work on the ground to make all our communities welcoming of all people.

As meaningful as our work is, it’s not fast. Shifting this culture of fear and anger aimed at everybody and everything by offering opportunities to change hearts and minds seems a bit naïve and lame in the world of social media and TikTok. But the things we love about our home and this place are bigger than what provokes us to anger and despair. And I don’t think we’re alone as we quietly work for change.

In a world as polarized as we are, it’s hard to imagine many of us in the same room, particularly these two groups. And none of us need pretend to be neutral. But we believe there is some space for solidarity in our desire to be free from persecution for having different beliefs, for loving who we choose, for the opportunity to pursue our own happiness, and simply to accept our universal ability to make mistakes.

I wish the Waymakers hadn’t tacked up a placard of the Om above a cross in the chapel.  I wish the men and women from the community hadn’t shown up in trucks and 4-wheelers with puffed up chests. I’m grateful there was no violence or intent to do harm from either party. But most of all, I hope we can all find a better way to talk, to hear, and to see one another as human beings with all the vulnerability and frailty it implies.

 The Waymakers Collective said it had set up the chapel “for rest and quiet reflection” and “healing.” (Tri-City News Facebook page)

Gerry Roll is the CEO of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky, a nationally accredited community foundation headquartered in Hazard and committed to helping create places where all people can thrive. Focused on building communities of people with the capacity to create solutions and the ability to leverage the resources needed, Gerry’s work in Eastern Kentucky has been focused on engaging local people to create equity in housing, early childhood education and health. She has led the creation of a regional Community Housing Development Organization, a federally qualified health center, a quality rated early care and education system and a full continuum of other support services for working families. She is a founding member of Appalachia Funders Network and an alumni of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors Community Advisory Council. She is recognized locally, regionally, statewide and nationally as an advocate for rural development and community philanthropy. Gerry lives on the north fork of the Kentucky River in Busy.

Top photo: Pine Mountain Settlement School’s Charlotte F. Hedges Memorial Chapel, designed by architect Mary Rockwell Hook was built 1922-24. Italian immigrant Luigi Zande, a stonemason, worked on the building. (Photo from Pine Mountain Settlement School Collections)