“…The inherent worth and dignity of every person..”
-1st UU Principle
The mountains of West Virginia are full of stories. The stories of untold geologic ages before our own. The rending noise of the arrival of the Anthropocene, our current age, taking humans into those mountains in loud ways, intrusive ways, vital and ever-changing ways. The stories the rivers tell, and the high muds and damage left by floods. Stories of wealth. Stories of poverty. Stories of corporations. And ever, always, stories of people.
When the youth and adult chaperones and I head to McDowell County for our annual service trip, I get excited for those stories. They may be old to me, but they’re new to some folks on the trip – and I hear new ones every year myself. We have guest musicians who come and sing their stories and the stories of their community. We meet the people whose homes we work in, and we hear their stories. We hear stories from the folks that work for Big Creek People in Action, the community organization we partner with each year.
Marsha tells the best stories. She runs BCPIA, and we like to start each trip by hearing some of Marsha’s stories of growing up in those mountains, of leaving them, of returning to them, of the healing she tries to bring in her small way (which is really a very big way, though she’ll never say it herself). “I sleep in the bedroom I was born in,” she will begin, and we will listen, rapt – whether the story is new or well-beloved.
This year I got a preview of a new story when Marsha shared on Facebook about one particular man that the service groups have been helping this year. Johnny is well known and well loved in McDowell County and most especially the Big Creek community we serve on that side of the mountain. Johnny spent his life in service to others, always ready to go out of his way to lend a helping hand. In recent years, he’s had hard times, health issues, his home falling into disrepair, a hospital stay followed by a nursing home stay that left him needing a wheelchair most of the time, unable to access his own home, and stuck living in his pickup truck. This year, groups have built a new wheelchair ramp, made the floor of the home stronger, put in a new accessible shower space. We built a new sink brace for the kitchen and our brave youth worked underneath the home running water lines, while electricians were beginning the work of restoring power to Johnny’s home.
To hear all this, you might think you know Johnny’s story. It’s easy to pick up a few elements and think we can sort out the rest by ourselves. But when we got to meet Johnny in person, I realized how wrong my own assumptions were. How can a man who can barely walk, who lives, sleeps, and eats in the cab of a pick-up truck, be a welcoming presence? I can’t explain it. You’d just have to meet Johnny. As soon as I shook his hand, I felt like I had a new friend. We all said hello. His friends, helping keep him safe while we fixed up his house, said hello. And Johnny held forth, his eyes twinkling to tell of his adventures, all the things he’s done. It was on my lips to say something hollow sounding, about how we wanted to “give back” something of what he gave to his community, but I stopped before I’d said two words. Johnny did not require our pity, he did not need “saving.” He needed, and wanted, to be known.
“Dignity” is one of those words I’ve known forever but would be hard-pressed to define on the spot. I looked it up. Dignity is “the state or quality of being worthy of honor or respect,” and also “a sense of pride in oneself; self-respect.”
How often do we forget that part of what we become is how we treat ourselves – and how we show to the world the way we treat ourselves and others?
By learning Johnny’s story this year, I learned a lot about what dignity can mean in action. He has lived his life in such a way as to earn respect and regard, and he recognizes that within himself. His circumstance is not who he is. That is his story, one that his community will tell again and again, even once Johnny himself moves on to whatever is next.