The despair in their eyes haunts me still. The dullness of emotion, the deadness of spirit shall remain forever embedded in my memory.
I wish I could toss the memory into a sea of forgetfulness.
For years, I had wanted to participate in mission work in the Appalachians. I am mindful always that I'm one of the lucky ones for I was born to two people who were courageous and brave enough to escape from a cycle of poverty and fruitless dreams. They fled a place that hope abandoned years ago and never looked back.
It felt important to reach back and offer a hand to some not so fortunate. As it is said, "There but by the grace of God go I." And so it was that Tink and I headed with members of our church north to the gorgeous but desperate back hills of Kentucky, a paradoxical place that is simultaneously blessed with beauty yet cursed with the ugliness of poor people and where hope escaped long ago out of a broken window.
As the good Lord would have it, we had just spent a few days in Los Angeles on business. We came in from the airport, changed out our suitcases, trading dress clothes for durable ones.
It is a long way from Beverly Hills to the Eastern Kentucky foothills. In more significant ways than mere distance. It is easier to leave behind thoughts of the lifestyles found in that wealthy enclave than the sadness of not much of anything, a place where less than a half acre of land will hold three dwellings of some kind, one right in front of another because there are no zoning laws in those hollers.
In the past five years, coal mines have closed down rapidly, one after another. When mines close, jobs go and other businesses such as stores and restaurants follow quickly. Only fear remains.
In a small church in a holler way back from a main road about 20 women gathered. They dutifully listened as I tried to convince them of Biblical truths, touching on a couple of the 8,000 promises within its pages and talked of a gracious higher power that loves and cares for them. From the look on their faces, some didn't believe it.
There was not a flicker or recognition of hope from some of the eyes that stared back at me. As a child, I can remember preachers being so overcome with the spirit while in the pulpit that they would yell out, "Can I get an 'amen' on that?" To which the amen corner filled with deacons and visiting preachers would echo, "Amen!"
There was, of course, no "amen" rising up from those women and the dullness of the room dropped an axe over any I might dare to think. One by one, I looked each woman in the eye and tried to will hope into her. Unfailingly, each one would look at me briefly then drop her expressionless eyes to the ground. They were afraid, or so it felt, to catch a glimmer of hope for they couldn't bear one more disappointment.
Down the road, Tink and other men worked on home improvements for dwellings falling apart from rotted wood and penniless neglect. He was stunned by what he saw.
Since that trip, we have discussed that we might not have been of great service to them, though try hard we did, but they were of great service to us. Our perception of life was forever changed, our gratitude for our many blessings forever increased.
Can I get an "amen" on that?
Ronda Rich, author of "What Southern Women Know," writes the Dixie Diva column that appears in several newspapers.