It’s a lesson I’m sure I won’t forget. When I think of gratitude and what it means to be thankful, my mind journeys back in time to the late 1970s and rural West Virginia.
For about two years, I lived and worked at a small friary outside of Morgantown, West Virginia. Among the various programs that were part of the community of people there was outreach in one of the hollers among people living in poverty. The place was Jerry Hollow. We worked through a settlement house, a kind of social service agency that coordinated tangible services for the local residents. The services included things like a food pantry and thrift shop as well as matching volunteers to help with home repairs for the elderly.
While they have surely passed from this life, I remember sitting with people like Mrs. Leemasters who could never understand why anyone would want electricity in the house. “I’m happy to have the line come up to the property to run the refrigerator.” The refrigerator sat on the front porch. She continued, “But I don’t want that stuff running through the walls of my house. It’s likely to cause a fire!” There was also Mrs. Black who didn’t trust strangers but fell in love with a friend of mine from Tuckahoe, New York named Mary Ellen. Mrs. Black shared recipes and remedies with this fast talking New Yorker with a very quick whit. Watching their exchange, I learned a bit more how disarming humor can be when people are afraid.
While these community elders were an important part of my experience in Jerry Hollow, no other place captured life there more than the Jesus Mission in Osage, a Black Pentecostal church led by Brother John. The clap-board church is long gone, but I remember visiting the mission on many Friday evenings for the prayer meeting.
With a gospel band leading the congregation in singing and swaying, Friday night prayer meeting was primarily a time of testimony. Throughout the duration of the prayer meeting, people in the congregation who lived in the surrounding hollows, would stand and offer a testimony of gratitude. They gave thanks for all sorts of things that people generally take for granted: waking up in the morning, having something to eat that day, the love of family, the presence of a friend, and even things as small as an aspirin to help with arthritis pain.
From working in Jerry Hollow and spending time visiting in the homes and on the front porches of members of the community, I knew that these testimonies weren’t just about church. Instead, this reflected the way that many people lived with a hearty sense of gratitude. From anyone else’s perspective, they might not have had much, but they were thankful for crisp, tart apples from the tree or ripe red tomatoes off the vine. The wonder of birds and the ways of animals were inspiring.
Now thirty years later, Jerry Hollow is far from my day to day life. In planning for Thanksgiving this year, I’ll join friends for a meal at a buffet where we’ll all eat more than anyone should. While I’m sure our conversation will include the gratitude we share for life, it’s won’t be the same as the profound gratitude I discovered as a way of life in rural West Virginia. Most of us give thanks for the ability to live with a surplus in life. My experience with people in Jerry Hollow was that they were profoundly grateful for the wonder of life itself.
Gratitude. It’s more than a cursory thank you. Instead, it can be a deeply moving, heartfelt expression for life. In the words of Emily in the scene from Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, “O Earth: you’re too wonderful for anyone to realize.” By living in wonder, deep abiding gratitude become possible.
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.