Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Unreachables?

I've been meaning to write this post while things were still fresh in my mind.  But, it's been well over a week since my husband and I watched a documentary called The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.  It's a documentary that I'm still thinking about.

The night my husband and I stumbled aross this we had been flipping through channels and hadn't found anything to watch, so I was actually preparing to go to bed.  As it turned out we had free Showtime that week & my husband had flipped to that.  I came in to the living room to say 'goodnight' to him & found myself sucked in.

My first reaction when I saw what he had on tv was "What in the world are you watching?!" because the documentary starts out with the same kind of crazy, in your face antics like you might see on the Jerry Springer Show.  I sat down on the couch stupefied but unable to take my eyes away.

Initially, this documentary seemed to exploit every stereotype there is about impoverished 'hill folk' in West Virginia.  Cussin', drinkin', smokin', dopin' cheatin', stealin', unmotivated, unworking trouble-makers is all you see at first.  It appears that the White family, who is featured in this film, is going to be a caricature and not much more.

And, don't get me wrong.  This family is rough.  One of the first scenes I saw was of one of the White sisters, Bo (who looks 60ish but is actually in her late 40's), sitting on the couch discussing her favorite drug of choice, marijuana.  The camera pans over to her son Derek (who might be late teens/early 20's) who laughingly joins in talking about his favorite drugs - anything in pill form.  His mom sits and smiles & laughs along with him.  

It's not all that surprising to learn as the film continues that of the 14 total White siblings,  only 5 (now middle aged) are still living.  The matriarch of the family, 84 year old Bertie Mae, is said to be a Christian woman who somehow managed to raise a family of outlaws who'd just as soon shoot you if you looked at them sideways.  The patriarch, D Ray, was hailed as a talented tapper/clogger (in the Appalachian style) and was murdered in 1985 in a shooting stemming from an argument.

Tragedy follows this family closely.  And, their lives have become a never-ending cycle of drugs, alcohol, and trouble with the law.  But as this documentary continued, something shifted.  It went from being almost a laughable mockery to being an in depth look at how cycles of poverty, abuse, & hopelessness are perpetuated.  A deep sadness built inside me as I watched more and more of it.

Perhaps one of the saddest things about watching it was seeing the young children in the film.  The children don't have one positive influence in their lives.  They see first hand all the grit and the horror.  Their parents do nothing to shield them from it.  It is simply their way of life.  

Tylor is about 8 years old in this film.  You meet him as he's literally bouncing off the walls in the background while his mother, Kirk, is being interviewed.  She is discussing in raw, profanity-riddled detail how she stabbed her former boyfriend.  Tylor parrots many of her phrases complete with profanity,  which is met with  'Aw.  Isn't he cute?' glances from his mother.

Kirk, later in the film, gives birth to a beautiful baby girl (child of the stabbed ex-boyfriend) who is born addicted to drugs as a result of Kirk's drug use while pregnant.  There is a scene in the hospital where the precious newborn is laying in her bassinet while Kirk talks about all the dreams she has for her daughter.  She pauses to snort some pills right then and there brought in to her by a family member.  Kirk and her family seem shocked and angry that child protection services takes the baby and places her in foster care.  

Kirk finally realizes she will need to enter rehab if she has any hope of bringing her baby girl home.  Family members try to talk her out going to rehab, but she is determined.  They give her a grand send-off party with a night of binging on drugs and alcohol.  

You do see some very touching scenes between Kirk and Tylor as he realizes he will be separated from his mother.  Despite all her shortcomings, it is obvious there is a deep love between mother and son.  And, if there is any redeeming quality in the White family at all, it is that there is a fierce love among them.  Family seems to be the one thing that means anything to them at all.

The film was produced by Johnny Knoxville (of MTV fame).  It is full of profanity, drug use, graphic scenes, and some brief nudity.  It's not in any way, shape, or form a Christian film or done from a Christian perspective.  

However, it still manages to touch on something important - there is profound hopelessness among this family and among many other impoverished Appalachian families.  They see no way out, no opportunity to make their lives better.  And, they simply give up.  Jesco, the oldest living son of Bertie Mae & D Ray, has continued his father's passion for the folk art of tapping & has built something of a following himself (Hank Williams III appears in the film as a friend of Jesco and the family).  Jesco sums up the depth of hopelessnes when he states that he feels like he is already a dead man who somehow is still living.

This hopelessness engulfs the viewer.  I came away from this film feeling like these people were truly unreachable.  They have some concept of Jesus and Who He is (in a very skewed way).  Pictures of Jesus are scattered throughout Bertie Mae's home.  From time to time a family member will make reference to Jesus or to God, but they miss the mark so completely.

And, I have been wondering.  How do you reach those who don't want to be reached or who seem so far from redemption?  How do you reach those who have generations and generations of dysfunction bred into them?  How can anything change?

I tried searching the internet to see if I could find something written as a Christian response to this film.  I came across things that took a political viewpoint - folks arguing opinions about welfare, pregnancy among the impoverished, etc.  But, everyone seemed to use this film as a way to get on a soapbox and not much more.  

My initial feeling as a response to this film is that there doesn't seem to be much that a Christian can do.  It would take a working of the Holy Spirit to soften the hearts of people so deeply entrenched in a life of sin and despair such as The White's.  Perhaps all I can do is pray.

And, don't get me wrong, I believe prayer is powerful beyond anything that we can comprehend.  Yet, as I was looking through the Bible I came across these verses....

2 Corinthians 5:18-20 (emphasis mine)
"All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them.  And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us."


2 Corinthians 5:14
"For Christ's love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all...."

2 Corinthians 5:16
"So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view."

These scriptures seem to call for a more active role in reaching those who seem unreachable.  The Whites have given up on themselves.  The world has given up on them.  But, as Christ's ambassadors, we can NOT give up on them.

I will probably never meet the White family personally.  For them, perhaps all I can do is pray.  But, is God calling me to be aware of others around me who seem unreachable?  We know that God does not wish for any to perish.  So, I have to believe that there is no such thing as unreachable.  

And, I want to know more of how I can live this verse....

2 Corinthians 4:6
"For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."

And when the darkness seem inpenetrable we need to remind ourselves (and our enemy) that Greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world.


  1. Great post. I understand what you are feeling. Last year I went to a conference on showed us how it enters a community and how hard it is to get it out. How the mind-sets are changed..etc. The conference was preparing us to go into these communities and know what we can do that helps and what doesn't help.
    It so opened my eyes that there were times in the conference I just wanted to lay before the Lord and weep for this thing that just ties people up.

    I don't have an answer for how to be His hands and feet, but I do know that He touched my heart and I will never be the same...and I hope He will show me how to walk it out. He will show me where to walk and He is the one who softens the hearts and turns them to Him...even in the midst of generational poverty.

  2. This post really struck me as I have been in education and human services for over 20 years and could write a book on all I've seen. I will simply say continue to pray for them and others like them. It is a vicious, hard cycle for their families to break. I have seen a lot of heartache and I always thought that I as one person could make a difference. So I hang in there hoping that at least one turns around. Because faith and hope are powerful things. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


  3. This is such a deep, sorrow-ridden, and complex subject, which involves a multitude of issues and layers of history. Place the rest of my thoughts within that context and understand that the two most practical things I believe a Christian, like you and me, can do is (1) pray, and (2) consider providing a child with truth (about Christ, about redemption, and His plan for what a healthy family looks like) through foster care--or supporting another family who is doing the HARD work of parenting a fragile and troubled child. Children who know Christ as their Lord and Savior are the hope of the future. Children who grow up in the absence of a relationship with Him and in the presence of damaging relationships become adults who are ill-equipped to make healthy choices because they've never experienced a model. This cycle occurs in Lancaster County, and it's consequences are just as dire. So, what can we do? Wake up to the realities of these circumstances in our own backyard and reach out in the precious, holy, and redemptive name of Jesus! There are many ways to support foster parents, who are doing this hard, life-changing work every day. Serving as a respite foster parent is one thing way to support those who foster-parent 24/7. Organizing and/or delivering meals on days that they are running all over creation to court, visitation,and medical appointments is another. Educating oneself about how to relate to fragile kids--even as a Sunday School teacher or youth leader is another. Karen Purvis has put out some great material on the subject, including her book, THE CONNECTED CHILD. Wouldn't it be marvelous if Taylor and baby girl came to know Christ through the heart-wrenching upheaval they had to experience through their separation from family? Wouldn't it be phenomenal if that same set of foster parents, who were required to interact with the birth mother during visitation, emanated such a level of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that birth mom would (1) be reassured of her child's care, (2) experience wonderment at something she's seen so little of during her lifetime, (3) SEE JESUS! I said, I know there are layers. This certainly doesn't address them all, and the "system" certainly isn't ideal. But there is an opportunity here to make a difference, one child--one family at a time!


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