War on Poverty at 50: Religion's Roots and Lessons

HOT SPRINGS, North Carolina

The 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson's launch of the War on Poverty reminds us how intractable that effort can be, despite the hope and determined idealism when the legislation was signed.

Appalachia was one of the targets for the newly-established Office of Economic Opportunity, utilizing programs like Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA). This anniversary also recalls how religion has motivated, shaped and sustained this effort, in many ways prefiguring the campaign, in both its successes and failures here, as well as in its limitations.

For more than two centuries, the these southern mountains have been a magnet for missionaries, both religious and secular, all determined to wipe out poverty, hunger and ignorance -- whether the region's benighted folk wanted them to or not. Their too-common failing, local people say, is that the erstwhile do-gooders have not respected the strong beliefs and culture that already existed.

With the best intentions, altruists and uninvited agents of uplift have come with their social gospel of "fixing" local people. That is, to wean them from violence and the debilitating use of alcohol, while bringing their brand of faith, along with education, nutrition and improved living standards. Invariably well-meaning, these efforts have typically ended in disappointment and frustration.

Early in the 19th century, the British-born evangelist Francis Asbury was a familiar sight hereabouts on horseback. Yet people here in Madison County -- a poor, sparsely-populated area hard by the Tennessee border -- looked warily at the Methodist missionary when he began visiting the village of Hot Springs (then Warm Springs) in 1800, carrying temperance in one saddlebag and disdain for mountain music in the other.

Although Asbury made some progress bringing Christianity over the following years, alas, frequent backsliding occurred. His last visit to Warm Springs, a year before his death, was on a Friday night in 1815, where he encountered well-lubricated merriment: "There was a dance -- such fiddling and drinking!"

In the 1880s, it was the turn of the Northern Presbyterians, who built dozens of small churches throughout western North Carolina. They and other denominations established boarding schools, hospitals and medical clinics.

Unfortunately, along with their Bibles, some missionaries also brought offensive attitudes about the people they came to help. Upon returning to the North, one of them, a Mrs. D. L. Peterson, set down her thoughts in the November, 1897, issue of Missionary Review of the World. The essay, "The Mountaineers of Madison County, North Carolina," reported that:

Illegitimate children can be found by the dozens, yet, as a whole, they are apparently considered no disgrace...The chief characteristic which impresses the most casual visitor among them is their extreme poverty...

By the early 20th century, the missionaries had failed to leave a lasting imprint; their institutions were for the most part closed, abandoned or left in ruins.

During the Great Depression, the secular missionaries of the New Deal followed, setting up three Civilian Conservation Corps camps in the county, and shipping in hundreds of young men. Most worked in a newly established national forest, maintaining roads, planting trees, stringing telephone lines, cutting fire trails and building observation towers. Federally funded Works Progress Administration projects employed local men to work on Madison County roads and public buildings. The new Social Security system at least infused some additional cash. But in the end, there was little fundamental change.

With the 1960s came the War on Poverty's Office of Economic Opportunity. Naturally, in communities like Madison County Head Start programs were based in churches. Late in that decade a small group of community organizers from VISTA -- dubbed the domestic Peace Corps -- came here, fired by humanistic values of the time. In June of 1970, one of the volunteers, Nancy Dean Morgan, was murdered. With her killing, which was never solved, the VISTAs cleared out, defeated like all their predecessors, and thought never to return.

Still, the altruistic impulse is remains resilient. VISTA -- today a part of AmeriCorps -- recently sent another young woman back to Madison County, to continue the battle against poverty and its causes, in this case a literacy and enrichment program for adolescent girls.

One instructional text Morgan and the other VISTAs were not offered -- but which would have benefited them -- was Horace Kephart's Our Southern Highlanders, particularly the chapter entitled "The Outlander and the Native." In it, Presbyterian minister Warren H. Wilson, known as the "Bishop of the Mountains," advised any missionaries, secular or religious, with ambitions to uplift the Appalachian mountaineers to proceed with caution -- and respect. A mountaineer, Wilson cautioned, would "refuse even what he sorely needs if he detects in the accents or the demeanor of the giver any indication of an air of superiority."

For Nancy Morgan's modern successors, the preacher's words are still good advice.

(A version of this essay appeared in USA Today)

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