Saturday, September 29, 2007
Take Me Home, Country Roads
The first item in my biographical sketch, used for church programs and speaking engagements, is that I grew up in Gary, West Virginia. More often than not, someone from within the congregation will approach me after the service with the special twinkle in their eye that comes not from a spiritual breakthrough catalyzed by my preaching, but rather from the shared heritage of being a Mountaineer. "I'm from West Virginia, too," they exclaim. After the exchange of specific information about cities and counties, there usually follows a conversation about the joys of being from West Virginia - almost heaven.
Given my origins in Southern West Virginia, I have been disturbed to the point of speechlessness by the accounts of seven captive days of rape and torture inflicted on 20-year-old Megan Williams. Images of this young Black woman forced to endure unspeakable abuse and indignities at the hands of six white people, among them a man and his mother, both sicken me and boggle my mind. I ask, along with the victim's mother and a nation aghast, how could human beings treat another person so cruelly. I cry out for justice, for the criminal acts to be punished and for the victim's personhood to be honored in the local courts, while all of America watches.
Unlike the rest of the nation, however, for me this case does not resurrect or reinforce preconceived notions about the fundamental backwardness of West Virginians. With all of its problems, most of them related to the collapse of industry and accompanying joblessness and poverty, West Virginia is home to some of the best, most generous people I have ever met.
Don't get me wrong, I am not naively pronouncing West Virginia free from the racism that plagues our nation, nor from the tensions that often attend interracial interactions. But I feel the need to say on behalf of all West Virginians, still resident or transplanted, that the West Virginia hills are home, the place were I learned from a community of people, black and white, what it means to be a good neighbor.