The Grace Church Youth Group spent last week near Hazard, Kentucky helping to repair a family’s home as participants Appalachian Service Project. Our family had lived in coal mining country for so many generations that Anna, the matriarch had lost count of them. Trucks mounded with coal passed by her small house on the narrow road every twenty minutes are so where she cared for her two, grown children with disabilities and two grandchildren of a son who died from complications of diabetes five years before. Standing in the yard she told me that the mine itself was right under our feet and a slow moving train that Anna referred to as her “boyfriend” loaded with coal came squeaking by her bedroom window at all hours. “My Daddy worked in the mine.” Anna said, “On his death bed he made my brothers promise never to go down into it.”
Anna’s daughter-in-law Helen lives right next store with her two children who she is also raising alone. Behind her house, also in need of significant repairs, she keeps a chicken coop which our city kid youth group gathered around hoping they’d be invited to hug the chickens, which they were. While our kids imagined keeping chickens in their apartments in Jersey City Helen told us the story of her last brood which she had for years until her then landlord, in an act of malice, demanded that she remove them from his property. “I think he just wanted me to let him have them,” she reminisced, “Instead, I butchered them. When my landlord asked where I put them I said, ‘In the deep freezer. Now I have two years’ worth of chicken.’”
It didn’t take long for me to recognize that Anna and Helen are both a lot more familiar with reality than I am. They know what it’s like to have hungry kids and no money. They know how to make do and how to make their love stretch enough for one more. I wondered what gave Anna her strength and mother-to-mother, she showed me.
Behind the house Anna keeps a vegetable garden watered by a stream. It’s small and orderly with rows of tomatoes, cucumber, cabbages and an eight foot high trellis made of wooden stakes and a fence. It’s covered with vines. I asked what was growing there and Anna said, “Oh, some greasy beans, pink pole beans, fall beans and field beans. They’re heirloom; been in my family for three hundred years. I figure as long as long as we have those even when I’m dead the kids won’t starve.”
Why was I standing in this woman’s yard? And why were the kids from our church tearing up her bedroom floor, petting chickens and throwing rocks in the river with her four-year-old grandson? Looking at the vines that had escaped their fencing and were now headed up the near-by telephone pole towards then 2pm sun, I knew.
There were seeds to hand down. Small, mundane and reliable, passed from the hand of Christ. Jan and I wanted our own kids to see that they grow just as easily above a coal mine in Kentucky as between the cracks of a city sidewalk.
Like learning to use a miter saw or mix floor mud, I wanted the children scattered around Anna’s property to learn how to intend on loving people before they know them.
It’s the treasure in the field I’ve prayed they’ll stumble over themselves, which is the only way anyone ever finds it. It’s the yeast hidden in the dough of every day that makes living worthwhile. It’s the song of the church’s heart, the only worthy thing we have to hand them.
And one day it will save them. One day it will save the world.
Until then, my children, take these seeds. Press them into your heart. Grow.
Your sister in Christ,