In Search of the Good
How a week in West Virginia with a group of Gen Z students changed my life
I work at a small Jesuit college in Western New York. This past January I served as the co-lead mentor for a service-immersion trip to Appalachia. For one week, 11 undergraduate students, a colleague, and I ate, slept, worked, wept, and laughed together as we learned about poverty, addiction, mental illness, food insecurity, sustainable agriculture, and extractive industries in Wheeling, West Virginia.
Our hosts and teachers were staff from the House of Hagar, a Catholic Worker home led by Kate (a modern-day Dorothy Day), and AmeriCorps members from Grow Ohio Valley. The work they assigned us was intense, both physically and emotionally.
We filled wheelbarrows with bales of hay and then pushed them up a steep hill in an apple orchard, where we learned how to mulch saplings. We helped out with a cooking class at a local public elementary school, where fourth-graders were learning how to make organic kale chips and homemade hash browns. We visited a soup kitchen and toured a nearby homeless shelter.
To learn a bit about food stamps, we took the SNAP challenge. Named after the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the activity dared us to shop for groceries in Wheeling’s downtown food desert. Each of us was given 30 minutes to shop for lunch and only five quarters to spend. At the nearby grocery store, I quickly discovered that one can of beans cost four cents more than what I had. I ended up being able to afford a yellow onion and a green pepper. For others, the cheapest item among limited choices was a container of instant ramen noodles.
Once we were back at the House of Hagar, we were divided into three groups for a simulation called the hunger banquet. Group 1, consisting of my co-chaperone and a student, was served pan-seared salmon, steamed veggies, and yogurt parfait. Group 2, consisting of three students and me, ate more modestly—cheese and crackers, celery sticks, an apple, and a few cookies, as I recall. Those in Group 3, which meant everyone else, initially were given nothing to eat. The exercise dramatized the shameful gap between upper-income and middle- and low-income households.
Throughout the week, we also ate, conversed, and sat with several House of Hagar friends, the people Kate welcomes with her open-door policy. Whether experiencing homelessness or wrestling with drug addiction, mental illness, or a combination, these friends receive a nourishing meal, a hot shower, and a connection with fellow human beings.
At the end of each long day, Team Wheeling, as we called ourselves, walked back to our modest living quarters at the Mother Jones House.
At the end of each long day, Team Wheeling, as we called ourselves, walked back to our modest living quarters at the Mother Jones House, a two-story house named after the American labor leader. Because it was under renovation, we slept on air mattresses in two open and unfurnished rooms on the second floor. The small bathroom that we all shared did not have a functioning shower, so we learned to be resourceful and ready to improvise with dry shampoo and a bar of soap.
Each night we sat on the floor in a circle as Jesse, a student-leader in his third year, facilitated a time for individual and communal reflection. After a quick reading, usually from scripture, we journaled for a few minutes. We then shifted to a group activity, for which the opening prompt was both simple and profound. Jesse would lean in, smile, and ask: Where did you see God today? Sometimes God was replaced with the word good. We scribbled our thoughts down on a piece of paper — sometimes writing words but more often, drawing images with bold magic marker strokes. We were then invited to show and explain our responses to the group, but only if we felt comfortable doing so.
As part of this intimate ritual, we encouraged each other to share the “highs and lows” of our day. Perhaps we needed to decompress after an especially intense conversation at the House of Hagar. Perhaps we needed to let the tears flow as we processed the image of families trying to survive on food stamps in rural America. Or question how this could even be possible in a country as rich as ours. Maybe we simply needed to express our anger, as we struggled to make sense of the harsh realities we were witnessing.
Maybe we simply needed to express our anger, as we struggled to make sense of the harsh realities we were witnessing.
The closing group prayer became our way to communicate concern — and ultimately hope — for the Wheeling residents we met, and for each other, as we grappled with the real-life lessons we would be bringing home with us. Although we interspersed them with the refrain Lord, hear our prayer (which I learned from the students is part of Catholic tradition), our prayers became spontaneous, open-ended expressions. Two members of the group, my colleague and a first-year student, often serenaded us with some of their favorite gospel hymns. Their soulful voices pierced through any sorrow that lingered.
There on the second floor of an old house in downtown Wheeling, I connected with a group of Gen Z students and was surprised by my own capacity for wonder, despite the temptations of Boomer cynicism. I could imagine and trust in a Creator whose presence was made real through our interactions with each other and with the West Virginians we met. It was a visceral spirituality unlike anything I’d experienced in the Presbyterian church of my youth, despite countless hours of worship in a sanctuary with stained-glass windows, a stunning organ, and a magnificent pulpit.
Twenty years ago, in his address to the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., proclaimed: “Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively.”
I can think of few statements more timely or needed. To be open to the world is to take it in fully. To explore its marvelous and maddening contradictions: beauty and ugliness, wealth and poverty, hatred and love.
When I’m tempted to despair about the state of things, I remember the energy and resilience of our Wheeling hosts, and how 11 college students embraced every lesson and project with ready hands, an open mind, and a vulnerable heart. I also recall my conversations with a few of the House of Hagar friends, including C, a gifted artist, and D, whose schizophrenia was but one aspect of her whole identity. Their life stories, despite our different life experiences, affirmed a shared humanity.
Their life stories, despite our different life experiences, affirm a shared humanity.
My adventure in Wheeling also reaffirmed the concept of college as being more than simply a place to earn a four-year degree. What good is a 4.0 GPA if you graduate with your provincial worldview unchallenged and unchanged? How much are professional accomplishments truly worth if you lack an ethical compass? What about a business executive whose sole focus is on making a profit, even if it means duping the public or cheating shareholders?
Spirituality can be defined as “our sense of who we are and where we come from, our beliefs about why we are here — the meaning and purpose that we see in our work and our life — and our sense of connectedness to one another and to the world and our life” (Astin et al., as cited in Jones et al., 2016).
Throughout my life, I’ve met good people from different faith backgrounds and good people of no professed faith at all. And as I get older, I become less convinced that adhering to a specific religion is a prerequisite for spirituality. But one thing is certain: a willingness to connect with others and to create meaning and purpose for our lives is needed, perhaps now more than ever.