A Spring Break service trip to Appalachia, God’s country
By Alexandria Addesso
We arrived on a long and meandering road just beyond a white sign that read “Doddridge County.” We were in West Virginia and at this moment all my assumptions of what Appalachia was like seemed to be gross underestimates. The road spiraled around the mountain as we passed small houses and trailers that sometimes had goats or chickens outside of them with their nearest neighbors at least the span of three apartment buildings away and the lack of street lights made the homes look dark at dusk. As a city dweller whose eyes had never seen such a sight firsthand, I was heavily intrigued.
“We’re here!,” shouted the campus minister and interrupted the acapella sing-along going on in the van.
The white barn that had “Nazareth Farm” etched into the shape of the mountains that engulfed the whole area validated what the minister had just said. We were here, where we would be staying for the next week, living a different life. Nazareth Farm is a non-profit Catholic community that was established in 1979 and offers free home repair projects to residents of the surrounding areas.
The van was bumrushed by staff members that hugged us one by one as soon as we got out of the van saying “welcome home.”
Welcome home? Many miles away from my home or anything that resembled it, this phrase that was also written in wood on the red barn in front of us baffled me. The eagerness and without hesitation to hug us that the staff effortlessly exhibited also left me stumped.
We entered the sex specific dorms filled with bunkbeds and a certain must that had confirmed the maximum three showers a week rule, two of which had to be bucket showers outside, that we were previously warned about was definitely adhered to. But by the end of the week the smell seemed pleasant if even noticeable.
We were to live for a week as the staff lived year round, by the four cornerstones of community, simplicity, prayer and service. Electronic devices were forsaken, so were make-up, hair products and any attempts to ask “What time is it?” to which all staff members would reply “It’s 10:10,” sometimes with their arms extended upward emulating the arms of a clock at that specific time, this they said was God’s time.
We worked, slept, ate and prayed among students from Notre Dame, Syracuse, Saint Xavier’s and Evansville University. They divided us into work groups that mixed up all the schools as well as their ministers. Everyday we were sent to a different staff member’s worksite. One day we were demolishing the underpinning of a trailer with a tire-swing that hung on a tree behind it, a dirt highway in front of it and green mountains and hills surrounding it that looked like they were painted by Bob Ross. Another day we spent building a wheelchair ramp on a property that also housed a large barking beast of a mother pig that was very defensive of her hairy piglets.
Of all the worksites one in particular was vividly carved into my memory. We were at the home of a couple by the name of Tom and Nancy, failing the battle against the rain while building a back-porch. When it came time for a lunch break we went inside to eat, being that I did not want to offend them by leaving a wet foot-trail across their living room and kitchen, I hung my rain soaked socks outside. While my group members sat in the kitchen some force, possibly the Holy Spirit itself, drew me into the living room where Tom and Nancy were sitting.
Astray from my usual path of introvertedness I began to talk to these people who if not in this particular situation, I would have never laid eyes on let alone talk to. And we did not talk about the weather, or politics or sports, we went deeper than the porch posts cemented into the dirt the previous day. Tom began talking about his brother being incarcerated for a long time when he was younger and how it changed him, to which I could readily relate to.
“My brother used his prison slippers until they broke and he still shaves his head with the same type of single blade razors he did in prison. I used his nail clippers the other day because I don’t have any and found out it’s the exact same one he had when he was away,” I said with my Elizabeth, NJ slang accent that usually remains hidden in professional settings but comes out around family and friends.
They nodded their heads in complete understanding. I had become comfortable around these people, they spoke in their dialect and I responded in mine and there were no misunderstandings. I felt as if I was downtown talking to my aunt and uncle, their homes were similar and cigarette smoke was in the air. Tom opened up about his mother passing and how contractors swindled them with a bad siding job while he was in the hospital with her. She had alzheimer’s and we were sitting in what use to be her house, which Tom was raised in. Like him I spent my whole life in the house of the woman who raised me, my grandmother who similarly suffers from dementia.
As me and Tom were relishing in our similarities then eventually talking about the Book of Revelations, Nancy quietly noticed my bare feet. She gave me a pair of fuzzy black and pink striped socks without hesitation. I spent an hour talking inside the dry house while my crew went back to work. I was sure I’d be reprimanded for it, but I wasn’t.
Before work crews left each day we prayed outside holding hands in a circle. Then hugged each other following the staff members’ examples and said “have a great day.” When it came time for the final departure we prayed in a circle and hugged each other goodbye saying something like “it was great meeting you.” The goodbyes were not fake, last salutations to get over with so we could scramble out as soon as possible like roaches when the light is turned on. They were genuine and everyone knew everyone else’s name, nearly 40 of us. When I went to hug Andi, the staff member who ran the worksite at Tom and Nancy’s house, she said sincerely “Thanks for talking to Tom and Nancy, Alex.” I learned what I had done when I was not outside with my work crew was the ministry of presence.
The love and consideration for all living things that oozed from the staff members had successfully infected each and everyone of us. This place was special, holy ground. Love was not just in the air, it was in the dirt and especially in the mud. If God is love, then God was definitely at Nazareth Farm and in large, heaping amounts.