Why did I decide to spend a year living in a tiny town in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, hundreds of miles away from anyone I know?
I loved college. I took fascinating classes, had wonderful friends, and played keyboards in a rock band. Carleton College felt like home. But I was getting burned out. I needed some time away from the constant stimulation of events to attend and papers to write and emails to answer from 9 in the morning until midnight—on a good day. My success was important to me, and this intense focus on myself was making me soul-sick.
So I went to Kentucky. I applied for and was accepted for a year with AmeriCorps and with Christian Appalachian Project (CAP), serving at the Eagle Child and Family Development Center as an aide at the preschool and the afterschool program. This would be a year to be away from my old way of life, living in a beautiful place with like-minded people, following Christ’s call to serve the poor. It sounded like exactly what I needed, and exactly what God was calling me to do.
When I arrived in McCreary County on August 13, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I knew that McCreary is consistently listed among the poorest counties in the U.S., with high rates of joblessness and drug addiction. In poignant contrast, the scenery is gorgeous: much of the county is national forest, and we have Cumberland Falls (the “Niagara of the South”) and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. When I came to visit in April for my interview, I met incredibly kind, warm, and welcoming people with soothing, almost musical accents. I knew Appalachia is culturally unique, and its residents are often romanticized or viciously stereotyped by outsiders. I knew I would be serving with kids who were coming from difficult situations. And that’s about all I knew.
This year has been harder than I expected, and more fun-filled and joy-filled than I could have ever imagined. I arrived in Kentucky still processing the loss of my college community and coming to grips with the fact that I will likely never live under my parents’ roof again. I entered a community of people I had never met before—all of whom seemed likeable, but all of whom seemed very different from me. I was starting a year of long distance with my girlfriend (we are still together). I had never worked with preschoolers, and I felt clueless about how to relate to them. I was starting my first long-term 9-5 (or in my case 8-6) job. And I was plopped down a long way from town with no means of transportation (thankfully, now I do have my own car).
And it was hard. It took a while for these strangers, whom CAP (and, of course, God) had picked to be my housemates, to become some of the best friends I have ever had. It took a while for me to start feeling comfortable with the little ones. It took a while for McCreary County to feel like home.
And yet McCreary County is becoming home to me now. This year has been full of incredibly deep joy, over things big and small. The laughter and excitement of the kids is an amazing motivator to get out of bed, even on the dark, cold winter mornings. Every morning, I ride the school bus with the preschoolers, and along the bus route there are more gorgeous places than I can count to make my heart skip a beat. I have my housemates, amazing and inspiring people, with whom I share laughs and good conversations all the time, hikes and other outings on the weekends, and dinner and devotion four nights a week (these devotions have included, among other things, singing, prayer, Bible study, and discussions about life and God). I have the waterfalls, cliffs, rivers, and views that are everywhere here in this county—while we may lack the breathtaking vistas of bigger mountains farther east, we have subtle, tear-at-your-heartstrings beauty that has made me fall in love, and fall hard. And I have my relationship with God, which has blossomed in ways I never could have imagined.
This year has left me with the time and space to think, to stare into the depths of my soul in a way I never had before, which is beautiful and terrifying. I go on a lot of solo hikes. I have devoted far more time than I ever have before to my daily spiritual practices, whether that be devotions with my house, reading scripture, daily prayer (of various types), and reading books about spiritual matters. One Saturday, I went into the woods, sat down, and watched the day go by for two and a half hours, doing absolutely nothing other than a few pages of reading (and I was awake the entire time). I have been exploring contemplative forms of prayer. While I haven’t been doing a ton of reading, at least compared to what was required of me as a student, the dozen or so books that I’ve read since getting here have challenged and expanded my views of myself, the world, and my faith. God has shown me not only my brokenness and limitedness but also the mystical beauty of God’s image that I bear. I have learned what it means to hunger and thirst for God, to intensely feel God’s presence and to acutely feel God’s silence. I can’t even begin to express with words the growth that God has given me, but I think for a start I am more compassionate and more loving and more attentive to God’s voice.
While I have tried to follow Jesus my entire life, I have felt the distinct sense ever since I got here that Jesus has been pulling me closer. He’s been pulling me deeper into a life of service to God and to my neighbor, and into a greater fullness of life than I had even glimpsed before. At this point I am still very much in the dark about what God will call me to do after this year, or even what the second half of my year has in store, but I am grateful every day for what God has done in me so far. When I said yes to my sense that God was calling me to spend a year in McCreary County, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But isn’t that how discipleship works? When the disciples answered Jesus’ invitation to “follow me” by leaving their previous lives and following, did they really know the cross was coming? But without the cross, we cannot come to resurrection either, to new life and new hope. And by God’s grace, I am living in this light and hope more and more each day. Thanks be to God!
Joe Lowry is serving as a long-term volunteer and an AmeriCorps Early Childhood Educator at CAP's Eagle Child and Family Development Program. He is a member of the McCreary Volunteer Community. Opinions expressed in volunteer blogs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CAP or the Volunteer Program. If you would like to learn more about CAP's Volunteer Program or connect with a current volunteer like Joe, please contact us.