By Deacon David Montgomery
OXFORD — The members of this year’s St. Mary and St. Peter youth group mission trip have returned from the hollers of eastern Kentucky. This was our fifth mission trip to serve the poorest of the people in the area around Martin, Ky., by repairing their homes.
It was a hard week. We left July 10 and traveled 12 hours to the Appalachian area of east central Kentucky where 30 percent of families live in poverty. Forty percent of the children under age 18 live in poverty. Four to six people in the area die each week of drug overdoses.
Our job site was located near Van Lear, a couple of miles from where singers Loretta Lynn and Crystal Gayle grew up. We were the fourth volunteer group to work on a two-room addition to a trailer. Our tasks included insulating, dry walling, mudding, painting, roof repair, plumbing, electrical work and adding skirting to new and old parts of the trailer. The oppressive heat and humidity made the work that much harder. Actual temperatures recorded at the site reached as high as 102 degrees with higher heat indexes.
After work each day we spent some time relaxing and enjoying the local entertainment and hospitality, getting to know more about the culture of the people we were serving. On Thursday evening, we attended “Front Porch Pickin’” held in the Hwy 23 Country Music Museum in Paintsville. We joined the overflowing crowd of about 300 who sat in chairs opposite each other with a large dance floor in-between. Local musicians provided the lively mountain bluegrass music. They were not professionals who made their living from their music. They were everyday working people who loved to play as they were taught by their families.
People of all ages had gathered there, from toddlers to 90-year-old couples. Most of them took turns dancing. When we first arrived, most of the people dancing were older. One couple, in their 90s, slowly made their way to the dance floor as the old time music played. When they reached the wooden floor, they turned and reached out to each other in the classic dance pose. They stopped, as if to reach back in time to their younger years. Then, in perfect harmony, they danced.
The footsteps of all the old people were moving in a fixed rhythm, two steps forward and one step back. But their faces were without expression. I looked around the dance floor; all of the faces of the older generation were also without expression. Except one widowed lady of 83 years who comes to the celebration every week. She is always dancing, inviting men young and old to join her in the traditional dance. And she was always smiling as though she knew what is really happening at these gatherings.
It wasn’t long before our group joined other younger people in dancing with a great deal of expression. Youth and adult volunteers from Illinois, Michigan and Florida joined in. The old danced with the old and the young danced with the young. And then the old danced with the young.
I was watching the tradition of an older age being passed down from great-grandparents to grandparents to parents to children. The older dancers patiently moved in the traditional steps while the younger dancers looked down at their feet, trying to follow their movements. This was more than learning a traditional form of dancing. An old heritage was being passed down to the next generation. Seeds were being planted.
In the Gospel reading for July 17, Jesus proposed a parable to the crowds: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in a field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, yet when full-grown it is the largest of plants. It becomes a large bush, and the birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches.”
This is our task too, to pass on our rich traditions to our children and their children and their children. Our traditions are made of more than dancing and our cultural heritages. It also includes our faith.
Later in the evening at the celebration in the country music museum, the musicians invited people from the audience to come up and sing their favorite songs. At one point, a young girl came forward with her mother to the microphone. She was about 13 years old. With a voice far beyond her years, she filled the room with traditional songs rooted deep in the Appalachian mountain culture. The chit-chat sort of conversations that had gone on between people throughout the evening stopped. The people, young and old, fell silent as they heard this young girl sing “Amazing Grace.”
“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me … I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now, I see.” Then the song, “I Saw the Light,” an old-time tune full of tradition and of faith. “Praise the Lord; I saw the light.” The final song she sang included the line “Jesus the savior is the first face I’ll see.” This young girl was blind since her birth and yet she saw with the eyes of faith.
Faith is passed on from old to young and from the young to the old. Faith has been planted by God in all of us. Jesus teaches us to pass it on until “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour until the whole batch was leavened.” Our faith, too, must spread out to others.
(Deacon David Montgomery serves St. Mary Parish in Oxford and St. Peter Parish in Cosgrove.)