Each fall and spring semester, McNicholas seniors and teachers embark on a mission trip of service to the people of the rural Appalachian region of Tennessee in Grainger County. Rockets live in simple community at the Glenmary ranch on Joppa Mountain and work with mountain managers from Glenmary who give their time and talents to those in need. According to their mission statement, Glenmary Home Missioners is a Catholic organization dedicated to establishing a Catholic presence in rural areas of the United States.
Stepping into the rental van in the McNicholas parking lot, I know little about what is to come. I’ve heard we live simply and we do service, but I have not quite wrapped my mind about what exactly could happen over the next five days. Three-time Appalachian retreat leader Andy Ey assures us that the experience is unique each time and even he is not sure of the events that lie ahead. The excitement and anticipation builds as Ey drives us closer to Joppa Mountain.
We take a sharp turn and begin our ascent on Joppa Mountain Road. Upon reaching the Glenmary retreat house on Toppa Joppa, we claim our beds for the week and begin to settle in. Before we can unwind from the trip too much, we are split into small groups and meet our mountain managers, Bob and Donna, before heading out for a late evening shopping trip to Food City. My small group is given a budget of about $85 to provide two meals for almost 30 people. With Jeff Hutchinson-Smyth as our Group B leader, and a little help from Bob along the way, Anthony Brandt, Julia Brune, Liz Huber, Ellie Moss and I are able squeak by under budget while selecting a wholesome variety of foods.
During our reflection on this first night, I am still unsure of what the next day will bring, but I commit to “just rolling with it” and being open and ready for whatever my time in Tennessee bring.
“Mark Dill, can you turn off your phone?” Hutchinson-Smyth asks in response to an alarm going off. Dill manages to disable the phone as we discover that while he had turned it in to the teachers’ room the night before, he did not have a preset alarm for 6 a.m. turned off, thus waking up everyone on our side of the house. We laugh for a minute and then salvage any last moments of sleep we can cherish.
As I am sitting on the back deck with a growing crew of both students and teachers awaiting the sunrise to break through the dense fog and cloudy skies, Julia Straub says, “That looks like a piece of broccoli,” referring to a tree in the distance. On a more serious note, I find it fascinatingly true when Teresa Davis mentions the fact that we are looking up at the same sky and waiting for the same sun to rise that our family is back at home, as are the people in Liberia and all over the world. While we may seem distant and are in far different circumstances, we are all connected and created by the same God.
The energy is palpable as each small group heads out to their service site for the day. We learn that group B will be starting a rebuilding project to provide a stable roof on the home of a local resident. We meet Joe at the worksite and the rest of my group is receiving instructions to chop firewood and climb onto the roof to hammer in 2x4s. I am still slightly limited due to a shoulder surgery over the summer, so I am assigned the repetitive job of measuring and marking off each of the 2x4s every 16 inches from a seemingly never ending pile. Eventually I find my rhythm and find satisfaction in finishing the tedious work. Even though I earn the name “Ground Guy Vinny” from Joe, I do make my way to the top of the roof before we depart, and cannot help but assist in the work up there. While I am taking a break, I look out and just take a second to absorb the natural beauty of the mountain ridge in the distance. While the residents here may not have the newest or highest quality homes, the natural world around them is truly breathtaking. I am grateful for little moments such as this to slow down and appreciate the beauty of creation.
On the long ride back to the house, Hutchinson-Smyth tells us of just one of the unfortunate cycles that many Appalachian families experience. They earn just enough money to purchase a cheap mobile home from low quality companies and then once the house starts falling apart, they often cannot afford to pay to have them repaired, so they have to live with the poor conditions for prolonged periods of time. One thing I cannot help but notice is that despite the poverty and struggle, the people of Grainger County are a proud people and take great care for what they do have. We are told a story of a man who has a sizeable “junk pile” in his yard. When he is asked if he needs help to dispose of the mess, he is appalled. He explains that it is from that pile in which he makes withdrawals to sell items off when he is in need of the money. While I do not meet this man, his story is a great example of the can-do attitude of so many of the people we encounter on our trip. Not everything I see, however, is heartwarming. As we stop at a rural gas station for some drinks after the long day of work, my eyes are immediately drawn to the wall to wall lottery promotions. There are even certificates hanging from the ceiling showing the amounts of money people have won in the past at this location. To many, that may not seem like a significant observation, but I am appalled that the poor of the area are being manipulated and potentially sucked into a vicious cycle of throwing away what little money they do have.
Before we head to a bilingual Catholic Mass at St. Teresa of Calcutta, Donna shares with us some information about the work that Glenmary does in the region. She says, “We don’t preach to them, we show them who we are through our actions.” As she talks to us about an ICE raid earlier in the year on the immigrant worker population, I can feel the emotion in her voice and the passion she has for helping these families feel safe in their own community.
After we attend the bilingual Mass with local residents, both English and Spanish speaking, we make our way to the presiding priest’s home. We cram into his humble living space and listen to him speak on the plight of the people he serves every day. Between his and Donna’s personal testimony, I believe many hearts in the room have been touched and many eyes have been opened a little more, including my own. My first full day on the mountain leaves me hungry for more.