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West Virginia, Mountain Mama

I went to a writer’s conference last weekend and it was everything I expected and everything I didn’t expect. I mean what do you think of when you hear: West Virginia? "Take me home, Country Roads to a place I belong, West Virginia, Mountain Mama."  For a split second, I only referenced this song as one I learned in Elementary school, not as a John Denver classic. 

“How did you hear about this conference?” was a question I fielded as I introduced myself to new people. “A Facebook Ad,” I would reply with a curious inflection, wondering if I had been the only one to hear of it this way. It didn’t seem like a well-known conference with recognizable names. I, for instance, only recognized one name in the list of speakers-Jackie Hill Perry. I think the conference had about 600-700 attendees and I wondered how others came to know about it. It didn’t appear they were drawn by the same speaker I was, or at least my assessments based on appearance didn’t think so. My judgments proved true when not one of the folks I spoke with mentioned a Facebook Ad or Jackie Hill Perry’s speaking schedule. Some were locals, others were returnees. So, what was so special about this conference that speakers and attendees traveled to a city two hours away from the closest airport and very little public transit? 

I wonder if they were impressed by the same things as I: The diverse lineup of speakers, the invitation to learn and experience the local community, the opportunity to retreat to the mountains and sing John Denver along the way.

Having diversity meant not every speaker needed to touch you in the same way but every attendee probably felt touched by at least one person. 

At first glance of the ad for the conference, I suspected the host had been purposeful in developing its lineup. Someone seemed very intentional to have ethnic, geographical, generational, and denominational diversity amongst its speakers and it impressed me. The Church, unfortunately as MLK once described, still holds “one of the most segregated hours… in Christian America.” It’s not just Sunday morning though, it’s Christian organizations, fellowships, homeschool groups, conferences and much more. It’s disheartening to see, especially as our country becomes more and more divided. 

So it was refreshing to see thought put into who would headline the conference. And every single speaker delivered. In their own way and their own voice from their own experience. Of course I have my favorites but having diversity meant not every speaker needed to touch you in the same way but every attendee probably felt touched by at least one person. 

What’s more incredible about the diverse conscious conference is that it was held in a town like Bluefield that it’s limited in its own diversity. 

I’ve found in most places if I want diversity it is more likely to be in the larger cities– my guess is that a safety in numbers mentality is at play.

As a black person I tend to be much more cautious traveling to smaller towns in America, even in my own state. It was in a small town in my own state where I first experienced racism. I’ve seen old movies and heard recent stories of small-minded-backward and ignorant thinking people placing harm on people of color. One way I’ve guarded myself is to live in and travel to large cities with more progressive reputations. When planning for this trip, though I’ve been a solo traveler to many places, including other countries, I wasn’t completely comfortable traveling to Bluefield by myself. (I ended up inviting my mother to attend with me.)

Bluefield and it’s in-between kingdom dwellers, have expanded God’s kingdom in bringing this conference to their community.  

I wouldn’t know my thoughts were grounded in reality until after the conference. I was too busy leading up to the conference to read our host’s emails, detailing some of its historical trauma. Per the email, Duke Ellington left town because of a racially motivated incident and black students attending an HBCU left because of bomb scares. Yet in the telling of Bluefields darker days, hope shined through. Travis, the host of the conference shared the story of Bluefield in such a compelling way - comparing the city to a widow, likening the many people who’ve left the city as loss but are now primed for redemption. 

I liked how Travis didn’t hide the hard parts of Bluefield’s history- racism that forfeited black talent, or the droves of people who’ve left for better economic opportunity. He even mentioned the difficultness of today: being called  “ground zero for the Opioid epidemic” It didn’t sound like there was all that good sandwiched in between these times but bringing our focus back to the in-between (the conference’s theme), and connection to Kingdom, Bluefield and it’s in-between kingdom dwellers, have expanded God’s kingdom in bringing this conference to their community.  

I saw Bluefield’s beauty not just in the mountains, and purple trees that line the highways but in Travis’ humility, inviting us in the ugly too. 

What impressed me about the conference has also inspired me, and not just in my writing. It’s got me thinking about how to approach missions. Travis and the many others I met from Bluefield and the surrounding area were very humble and honest about their past and present, and still invited others to not ignore the mess but still enjoy their town. In their actions they spoke words of their own value and they shared it with us. It’d be easy for them to just be on the receiving end but instead they’ve invited others to see their in-between. 

I can’t help but think of the widow’s mite and the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet. Mary risked embarrassment, but didn’t care, what was most important was honoring Jesus.  We have little to offer God in comparison to what he’s offered us but we offer it anyway. Similarly, Travis claimed Bluefield’s value, and shared it with the world.

Isn’t that the call of the kingdom and the in-between? God loves us, values us, and shares with us and calls us to do the same with others.

I invite you to learn as I have, everyone and every place has value and something to share, and in doing so you shine a light that draws people to Christ.  

Photo by Reba Spike on Unsplash


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