Every year, for the past 21 years, our family has spent our summer vacation on a two-week mission trip with the PV Volunteers, to serve poor people in rural West Virginia.
The poverty in Appalachia is crushing and depressing. The coal and lumber industries employ many, but the economy otherwise is struggling. Unemployment is high, especially among young people. Housing conditions can be appalling — many people live in dwellings that would be condemned in New York. There is a terrible drug problem, and all the health and social devastation that comes along with it. The beautiful environment has suffered terribly from the pollution from mining, and from exploitive practices like strip mining and mountaintop removal.
The PV Volunteers is not like a regular church group, who travel on mission together and then return home together. After having been sponsored for many years by the Passionist Congregation (our original name was the “Passionist Volunteers”), we are now independent, but still Catholic and Christian in our identity. They volunteers come from all over America — young and old, families and singles, from an amazing variety of backgrounds. They travel great distances, and put their lives on hold for a couple of weeks, or even the whole summer, to serve God’s people in Wyoming County.
The work is difficult. There are repair jobs on the homes of people who can’t do the work for themselves — fixing leaky roofs, painting, repairing floors and walls damaged by floods, building ramps for the handicapped. We run sports camps for kids who are isolated in the mountains with little to do in the summer. Visiting the homebound elderly and mentally ill people is an essential part of our mission, spending time with them, and talking to them to relieve their loneliness and isolation.
The living conditions are not easy. We stay with up to 30 other volunteers in an elementary school, sleeping on air mattresses on the floor of classrooms, with a shared shower (not much hot water!) and bathrooms. Chores and meals are in common. There’s no privacy, little comfort, and lots of sore muscles. The program runs on a shoestring, and is always short of funding.
The work we do is certainly important — people with leaky roofs need to have it repaired, and they need help recovering from the frequent floods.
But that’s not the point of the mission. We don’t just work for the people here — we try to share their lives, to share ourselves with them. And we strive to experience the divine in them, and in ourselves. Every evening, no matter how tired or worn out we are, we gather for a review of the day, and a spiritual reflection on its meaning.
In many ways the people in Appalachia are invisible — they’re in fly-over country, isolated in the hills, and easy to ignore. But they are wonderful people, and God is very close to them. Family and hospitality are central to their lives. They have great faith in God, and know that even in their hardship, He loves them. They trust Him, bear their burdens with great patience, and live with hope. They enrich and strengthen us. So many of them have touched our lives, and it is a privilege to work for them.
For Peggy and me, this trip is part of who we are. It is understood in our family that we will spend our vacation in West Virginia every year. Back in 1993, we left our home in New York — and I quit my job — to spend a year as PV’s in West Virginia with our children. This experience has transformed our lives. It has been a deeply formative experience for our children as well, who have seen first-hand how to serve and love those who are needy.
We see the most powerful sign of God’s love in our fellow volunteers, especially in the other married couples who serve together. These apostles understand that their sacrament is a sign of God’s self-giving love, and they offer that to the people we serve. It is an awesome testimony of the power of divine love in our lives.
Our modern age demands signs — something that will point out the meaning of life. To those people who are still searching, we invite them — come to West Virginia. Here, you will see the sign of faith in the people’s trust in God and reliance on him in their hardships. You will see the sign of love in the people who come here to serve the poor and lonely, and who are loved in return. And you will see the sign of hope, a firm confidence that God has a plan for all of us, which will always prevail.