Beth Collins, Director, Appalachian Institute at WJU
Too many times when the term “Appalac
hia” is used, a negative, almost sympathetic thought, is conjured up. At the Appalachian Institute, while we recognize challenges that need to be addressed such as health care, environmental exploitation, generational poverty, and access to quality rural education, we also stand firm in our belief that this region is one to be celebrated, even bragged about. For this reason, we recently held our annual Celebrate Appalachia event on the campus of Wheeling Jesuit University.
We kicked off the week of events by getting the campus involved in our new community vegetable garden. Over 40 people shoveled, planted, and began to grow the seeds of community and healthy living. Later that night, campus and community members celebrated some of our greatest Appalachian assets—food and music! An Appalachian feast complete with ramps, fried green tomatoes, venison stew, chicken and dumplings, and apple stack cakes were served up. Along with the dinner came some great music from a local bluegrass band and a quilting workshop.
Later in the week, Appalachia’s long history with the labor movement was highlighted by local musician and WJU employee, Tom Breiding. Breiding’s folk music told the story of the earliest labor protests, the role of WV in the start of a nationwide labor movement, and the current struggles for union coal miners.
Rooted in Scottish, Irish, and Native American influence, Appalachian folk tales reflect history and fantasy. During the week of events, local storyteller, Judi Tarowsky, performed her collection of ghost stories for local community children during our Appalachian Story Hour.
The Appalachian Pastoral Letters, specifically the original 1975 This Land is Home to Me, highlight the beauty and challenges of the region. The letters were a catalyst for organizations like the Appalachian Institute to be formed. Several philosophy and theology classes learned the impact the letters have had on the region and the “dream of the mountains’ struggles” that we still encounter today through a personal account from Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ and Fr. Jim O’Brien, SJ.
A key feature of the week was to not only emphasize the splendor of the region, but also modern challenges that the region is facing. The topic of natural gas drilling is one that’s literally taken over regional news. Many of the news reports and academic journals focus on the environmental costs versus the economic benefits. Brian Cohen, lead photographer for the Marcellus Shale Documentary Project, introduced a different category into the conversation—the community impact. Through an unbiased lens, the team wove together a stunning, and sometimes tragic, story of families that are succeeding and families that are forgotten. Several community groups, students, and faculty attended the evening presentation.
To end the week of events, Fr. Brian O’Donnell, SJ led a lunch discussion with employees on green theology and Appalachia. Using excerpts from At Home in the Web of Life and the model of the Franciscans, a clear question arose—do we have a vocabulary yet in terms of the dignity of nature to effectively argue the pros and cons of a particular intervention into ecosystems? As a Jesuit university, this burden of creating such a vocabulary and shift in mindset is particularly significant.
Here at the Institute we believe that praising a region is just as important as advocating for its struggles. The two must go hand in hand if empowerment is to happen. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ said during convocation at WJU this year, “Without kinship there is no peace. Without kinship there is no justice.” Delighting in our history, our culture, our kinship as Appalachians is the foundation for advocacy and change.