From the Editor

Helping people starts with listening

Executive EditorJuly 4, 2009 

When two Raleigh women were preparing members of their church for a recent mission trip to rural eastern Kentucky, the women showed them the film, "Stranger With a Camera."

The documentary tells the story of Canadian filmmaker Hugh O'Connor. In 1967, he went to the Appalachian region of Kentucky to tell the story of its people.

He followed a trail of other journalists, prompted by Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, who traveled to Appalachia to report about the stark conditions. Some locals welcomed them; others resented them as self-righteous do-gooders.

Hobart Ison, an elderly property owner in Letcher County, considered journalists intruders. As O'Connor finished filming families living in shacks on Ison's property, Ison shot and killed him.

Elizabeth Barret, who created the 2000 film, was born and raised in eastern Kentucky. "I came to see that there was a complex relationship between social action and social embarrassment," Barret said.

It was that relationship that Nancy Nutt and Trish Bynum sought to explain to 35 teenagers and adults of Hayes Barton United Methodist Church in Raleigh. (My family attends the church, and Nutt and Bynum are friends of ours.) The group was preparing to spend a week in June in Clay County, Ky., not far from where Hobart Ison shot Hugh O'Connor.

The group from Raleigh would break into several teams and work to improve houses and mobile homes. Their effort was part of Appalachia Service Project (often called ASP), a ministry started 40 years ago by a Methodist preacher. ASP volunteers typically sleep on a school or gym floor at night and work on a home during the day.

Nutt and Bynum are close friends and ASP veterans -- each has been on at least 13 trips. They started when their kids were teens and part of the church's ASP group. Now their children are adults, but Nutt and Bynum have continued leading their church into Appalachia every summer.

Sometimes they've been received warmly from the family whose home they were repairing; sometimes not. Their approach is not to pass judgment on the family's habits; to love the family as it is; and to get to know the family as friends, if that's what the family wants.

"The world is small. We're all here together," said Nutt, a retired preschool teacher.

Shocking conditions

Most of the teens on the trip are from families that live comfortably. The stark poverty jolts them. It overpowers even adults who have been on several similar trips. Some homes are without running water and have holes in the roof or floor.

"I tell them you are entering their home," said Bynum, a nurse. "Be respectful. Be friendly. Be genuine. Don't judge them. Just love and respect them."

In Clay County, one of the poorest counties in the United States, ASP will work on 18 homes during seven weeks this summer. Each week, groups from across the nation roll into town to help.

The Clay County effort is led this summer by Chrissy Sibley, an N.C. State University senior from Cary. ASP returned to Clay County recently after a 27-year-absence.

Sibley, a gifted leader with seven summers of ASP experience, recognized that she needed to get to know the community before starting her work. She started calling residents in April to build support.

"They've opened their doors and their hearts," she said. "They really want us here."

That's a tribute to Sibley and her staff of three other college students. For an outsider, whether journalist or missionary, perhaps the most important quality is to listen.

"They have interesting stories," Sibley said of the families with which she works. "If you look deeper, everybody has a story, and everybody wants to tell their story."

john.drescher@newsobserver .com or 919-829-4515

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