A Changing Approach
Understanding the entire picture of this church is not as easy as I had initially thought. I started this project with my head full of ideas and theories that I as an outsider was going to “put onto” this “impoverished, Appalachian, coal-industry oppressed, serpent-handling church.” As I look back on the first paper that I wrote about this congregation (which I have banished to the far reaches of my computer’s hard drive), the entire premise of my thesis was based on a “fact” that I now see is false. I had decided even before my first visit to the Church of the Lord Jesus that the experience of becoming a vessel for the works of the Holy Ghost must be giving these “deprived peoples” a sense of empowerment that they don’t get in their everyday lives. Although I am not denying that most of the signs followers I have met feel that they have the power of the Lord within them when they are anointed, I am denying my initial assumption that they are “deprived peoples.” They may have seemed deprived to my naïve eyes, but that was because I, with the best of intentions of course, was using my own middle-class, suburban Maryland, cultural background and was imposing that upon my view of these individuals. I was looking at the comparative poverty I saw in McDowell County, (where the Jolo church is located) through somewhat tainted eyes. The statistics for McDowell County, in comparison to the national statistics of poverty, appear to be quite compelling (the per capita market income is a mere 32.8% of the national average, the unemployment rate is 260.8% of the national average, and the 1990 Census reported a poverty rate at 287.5% of the national average ). However, what I have come to realize is that many of the individuals living in that area do not define their lives in terms of the middle class values used to set the standards for mainstream America.
The journey I have taken from viewing the Jolo church members (and surrounding community people) through my own ethno-centrism to learning how to connect with them on their own terms has allowed me to see what a hindrance middle class values can be to truly understanding other people. The Jolo people may not have as much money as a great deal of Americans, but, as one of the women in the church pointed out to me, “There are no homeless people here.” This simple statement is one that stopped me dead in my tracks and made me re-think my definition of poverty and oppression. I had to stop because I had not ever seen a homeless person anywhere in McDowell County. “You want to know why?” she asked me, “it’s because we take care of each other. We make sure that everyone has a roof over their head.” From her comment, I kind of got the feeling that it was I that was the deprived one, living in a world of assumptions and stereotypes.
© Shannon Bell, 2001