I am a writer who had the privilege of being born in a place – the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia – that is not often valued.
It is a place where peoples’ lives in all their quirky variety were lived in full view of their neighbors, where stark good and evil showed their face with some frequency, and at the same time moral ambiguity could be readily noticeable even by a small child.
What a wonderful gift for a writer to grow up there!
Let me share a bit of my story.
I grew up in the small coal camp of Black Wolf, in McDowell County, West Virginia. McDowell County sat on top of one of the richest coal seams in the world and yet is also one of the poorest places in the United States.
Thousands of people were brought in to run the coal mines, and then summarily let go when the mines mechanized. In the process, the environment has been devastated.
My father was an immigrant who spent most of his childhood in Sicily. My mother grew up in a large family in eastern Kentucky. Though neither went to college, my father became a coal company bookkeeper and my mother went to nursing school. Both served in World War II. They were singular personalities who taught me to speak out for what I believe.
I received a Methodist Church scholarship to study at West Virginia Wesleyan College, graduating with a history degree in 1973 and with a great respect for Methodist biblical inquiry. During my senior year I was exposed to the Church of England while on a study semester abroad.
I joined the Episcopal Church after falling in love with Anglican liturgy and theology, and earned a Masters in Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
I was ordained as a transitional Episcopal deacon in 1979. But I became aware I was called to write fiction, and that I was not called to the priesthood.
Since permanent deacons were not common at that time in the Episcopal Church, and since I was not certain how a vocation in the church would affect my writing, I renounced my vows and determined to pursue my writing career.
At the same time I was active in social justice issues in the Appalachian coalfields, working for land reform in an area that is largely owned by absentee corporations, demonstrating with striking miners, and speaking out against the horrific form of strip mining known as “mountaintop removal.”
I am currently writer-in-residence at West Virginia State University.
Since the Episcopal Church now encourages the permanent deaconate, in 2007 I was reinstated as an ordained deacon in the Episcopal Church.
My writing, which returns again and again to theological questions, is at the heart of that ministry.