Just Ask A Hillbilly

It’s nothing special. Just an old photograph—the focus is a little fuzzy and it’s certainly not the best angle. There are eleven of us gathered around a Sunday school table, and if I had to guess, the oldest is no more than five. I am the youngest. It might seem like nothing, really, but for me, it is a portal into another time—1988, another life ago when I was a little girl in a small town in the mountains.

I don’t live there anymore, but when I visit my parents, I still run into the oldest two children in that photo. Out of the five children that I still recognize in the photo, three are married. Two of them have kids. When I see her, the mother of the one who doesn’t is happy to complain about the fact she has grand-dogs instead of grandchildren. My own father loves telling stories about the kids of one of the others.

And then there’s the fourth child in that old photograph. She died in a car wreck after our freshman year of college. The roads of eastern Kentucky are unforgiving, so it took a long time to find her car. She had left her boyfriend’s house in anger, and, in these hills, running off the road meant that her car ended up down, down, down—all the way down to where the creek runs. The road she was riding on bears the same name as the creek where her car was found: Crane Creek. It’s the same road the school bus travelled as it wound its way between our homes and the little school I attended as a child.

I’ve been reflecting a lot about my early years in eastern Kentucky lately. I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s memoir, set in Breathitt County, Kentucky and Middletown, Ohio, not far from Greenup County where I grew up. I know the world he writes of, which is why I also know that the beauty of that world has been nearly erased from his story.

I think of this as I look at that old photograph. The death of the young woman from that photo was my first encounter with the death of someone my own age. And it has never fully left me. Read more

Etched in Stone

13934149385_697e2ac089_bIn the first year of serving my first church, I decided to wander through the village cemetery for the first time. I was on a mission to find a famous person’s headstone. After I had found Jane Addams’ burial place (she founded Hull House in Chicago, a settlement house, in 1889), I wandered around the rest of the cemetery. I don’t remember whether or not I had officiated a funeral yet, but I recall walking down a new row and being jarred to a complete stop. There, in front of me, was a stone that had a couple’s names etched on it. The wife had died already; the husband was a man I visited in the nursing home. I stood there, stunned, for minutes, knowing that I would be the pastor who laid the husband to rest behind that stone.

I had never faced that surety before. It was one of those moments when I knew I was a pastor. The man was frail in body, but passionate in mind. He loved to chat about what was happening in his church and retelling the history of the village. Upon meeting him, I quickly learned that my congregation would lose a huge knowledge base when he left this world. (He had been in town when Jane Addams’ body was returned for burial, he had heard Helen Keller speak, and he had touched Abraham Lincoln’s nose – the one on Mount Rushmore!). In this moment, I grieved that his body would give out long before his mind did. Two years after my moment in the cemetery, I did bury this man. I was honored and privileged to be able to be a part of his life.

Now, I am eleven years into my ministry. My mind flashes back to this today when I am in a different cemetery, looking for the plot where I will bury another faithful saint tomorrow. It’s my first year in this current church, and as I drive around the cemetery I see three headstones with familiar names of living people I have already come to love. I get out of my car and stand at the stone for each name, observing the final resting places of the people my parishioners and I love. Read more