Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Harlan County Lessons

A few years back, on two different occasions, I spent a long weekend in Harlan County, Kentucky. I was struck by the beauty of the Appalachian region of the USA. The hills and hollers were breathtaking on those sunny and cool autumn days. The people were wonderful. I met several local residents who struck me with dignity and pride, even in the midst of extreme poverty and despair.

I experienced all of this in the context of two mission trips to assist some folks in a food pantry and clothing distribution ministry in the little community of Smith. We enjoyed serving along side the many great and grateful people of that area. It was only after my visits to Harlan County that I learned about the coal miner's strike of the 1970's and the way it had been celebrated in films.

When I first learned of the film Harlan County War, a 2000 production starring Holly Hunter and Stellan Starsgard, I worked hard to find it. When finally I got to see the movie, I was shocked. Although the movie was made before I knew Harlan County, and the story was set way before I knew Harlan County, I felt that I knew the people on my 25" screen. They were hard-working, committed, minimally-educated humans. This film focuses on one family and the effects that the strike had in that home.

This week I saw another film about that strike. Harlan County USA, is a documentary that was released in 1976. This Academy Award winning movie depicts the events of the miner's strike with footage from picket lines, campaign speeches and union halls. It goes behind the scenes of the strike to look at the power structures that seem to conspire to keep a division between rich and poor.

I am probably more interested in these two films than most because of my personal connection to that area of the USA, but I cannot help feeling that this is/was a tragedy. People were bullied, beaten and finally murdered so that those with money could keep others from having money. What a tragedy!

I recommend both of these films. They are hard to find, but worth the effort. (Harlan County USA was being played on the Independent Film Channel this week.) A much-forgotten struggle in our history is depicted in a powerful way in both.

Now, a few things:
  • People in America are comparatively wealthy. We, yes all of us, are better off than most of the world. We need to understand how blessed we are.
  • With that prosperity should come a sense of responsibility. We cannot oppress and neglect those with less than us simply because we have money and power.
  • We should never use our wealth in such a way that further diminishes those without wealth.
  • In the USA there is an ever-growing divide between those who have money and those who do not. I am not advocating some Marxian re-allocation of wealth, but sensitivity and responsibility to care for those who are in need.
  • Whether there is money involved or not, we need to love and respect all people. Those who have fewer resources are just as valuable as humans as those with the most financial resources.

I learned from Harlan County and from these two films. I was reminded of the Golden Rule and the Great Commandment. It never hurts to review an important lesson.

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