The Christian Principles Apparent in Historic West Virginia Teacher Strike

Commentary
By Kelley Burd-Huss 3-02-2018
Image courtesy Shutterstock.com

American students and educators have had a bit of a week. In the wake of the gun reform debate triggered by the slaughter of 17 people in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School , teachers' pleas for the government to #ArmMeWith adequate resources to teach children, and a terrifying incident involving a teacher with a gun in Dalton, Ga., the vast majority of students, teachers, and parents are reeling.

In this environment, it has been easy to overlook what in any normal week would be a top story. Since Feb. 22, West Virginia public school teachers and employees have been forcing the state's 55 county boards of education to shut down, citing inadequate pay and climbing health insurance costs. That is every teacher, every public school, in the entire state. Though a strike of this scale is extraordinary, it is not without precedent. In 1990, West Virginia teachers in 47 counties stopped work and earned an across-the-board $5,000 pay increase for teachers throughout the state.

To any onlooker, this strike represents a shift in how West Virginians, some of the most ardent supporters of President Trump and conservative politicians, are engaging in the political process. But, countless West Virginia natives now living out of state — including me — are seeing a glimpse of Appalachian morality and the Mountaineer Spirit that formed us as children and young adults. It brings hope to see the values celebrated and taught to us as children — those of community, justice, and love — demonstrated on a grand scale in such a time of uncertainty.

Any talk of Appalachian morals must necessarily pass through Christianity, particularly the evangelical movements of the 19th Century that gave rise to mainline American Methodists and Baptists. Seventy-eight percent of Mountaineer adults are Christian, and of these Christians, 52 percent belong to Methodist or Baptist churches. As a child coming of age in the oldest Methodist congregation in Harrison County (founded 1798), John Wesley’s teachings of universal love, justice, and compassionately seeking community consensus appeared as much a part of West Virginian culture as pepperoni rolls or pig roasts. It brings hope to see the values celebrated and taught to us as children — those of community, justice, and love — demonstrated on a grand scale in such a time of uncertainty.

This is my love letter to the state and teachers that educated me and formed me in faith, even though they made no mention of God in their work, nor did they compel us to include Christ in our lives. Their faith was strong and apparent, just like Mr. Rogers in his children’s programming. And whether holding students’ hands or holding signs on the informational picket lines across the state, these teachers’ faith shines forth, particularly in the Christian principles central to their movement and to Appalachian identity as a whole.

Justice is Worth Perseverance (Micah 6:8; Luke 18:1-8)

This is a foundational principle in Appalachia that West Virginians are rediscovering. West Virginia was founded out of a 60-year struggle for self governance between the frontier people of Western Virginia and the wealthier, more powerful agricultural families in the East. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, West Virginia miners formed the cornerstone of the American Labor Movement, with the help of leaders such as Mary Harris “Mother” Jones. These struggles were not isolated incidents wrapped up in a matter of weeks. It took decades to realize a just result to the miners’ exploitation and suffering.

As children, we learned that justice was not something to passively pray for, but to be sought through prayer and enacted. Much as in the Parable of the Persistent Widow, we are called to bring attention to injustice we see, and to imagine and bring about solutions that demonstrate God’s justice on Earth. When those entrusted with our education cannot afford basic health care, or to devote their full time to the project of teaching, while our government spends a fortune on office furnishings, we must call out this injustice and continue to do so until justice is served.

Care for the Vulnerable (Exodus 23; Matthew 25)

As soon as teachers sensed a strike was imminent, they thought of their hungry students. Teachers organized two efforts — the effort to collectively bargain with the legislature for pay and benefits, and the effort to feed the 185,000 West Virginia children living at or below the poverty line. Teachers and the community knew that no school meant no free school lunch, a key source of nutrition for hungry children in the state. Teachers continue to work, even as they picket, coming off of the picket lines to deliver bags of food to community centers and households, and assisting in food distributions at County Board of Education offices.

Whenever I make a big decision, I hear my grandmother’s voice in the back of my head. “Think about how your decision affects others.” This principle was pervasive throughout the moral compass of my culture. And it is no more apparent now than in the actions of teachers, pressed for cash themselves, spending their dwindling resources to feed the hungry students they love.

The Common Good Over Self-Interest (Philippians 2:3; I Peter 4:7-11)

Ask any teacher about why they are on strike, and the answer is more-or-less the same. It’s about more than teachers’ pay and benefits. Teachers are on strike on behalf of all West Virginia public employees, seeking pay increases across the board for all public employees, and fundamental reforms to the state’s Public Employees’ Insurance Agency (PEIA) to improve its affordability. Many of these employees cannot strike themselves because they are essential for public safety, as are the states roughly 650 state troopers, or their work is essential to the legislative process necessary to approve any bargain between the teachers and the legislature.

When Gov. Jim Justice (no pun intended) prematurely declared he reached a deal on teachers’ pay and benefits, teachers pressed on with the strike. Why? Though the deal offered teachers a larger pay increase than other public employees, it did nothing to solve the real crisis — the state’s underfunded health care system and PEIA.

Just as Appalachian children are taught every action affects others, we are also taught to seek the common good in whatever we do. Appalachian communities are a true ecosystem — we know one another well, and because communities are small, we more concretely see how our actions affect others on a personal level. Mountaineers are always free, but we understand that when our freedom to get what we want harms everyone else, that freedom is for naught. What matters is what we have and can sustain together.

The Love that Casts Out Fear (I Corinthians 13; I John 4)

As Christians, we understand that God’s very essence is love. Love is at the beginning and the end of all we do and seek in Christ’s name. God’s love for us extends to everyone in the community and the world, and when love is the source of our actions, God is with us. Love unites us, and brings us into right relationship with one another. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Every day of this strike, teachers pepper their material demands with expressions of love for students, parents, and community efforts that make West Virginia the beautiful state it is. Teachers have been proactive to ensure students they love them and want to be in the classroom. They have relentlessly thanked parents for bearing the inconveniences of working from home or finding alternative child care. They have an ardent respect for fellow citizens, even in disagreement, that demonstrates their common bond as Mountaineers overrides how industrialists from outside the state seek to divide us.

When Gov. Justice announced his deal, an effort to divide the county boards of education from one another began. As teachers discussed the deal’s merits, they complained about the West Virginia Board of Education’s school closure website being unreliable, or offline. Confusion reigned as teachers contacted each other to check out news and rumors spread throughout the state. With job security, paychecks, and solidarity on the line, county offices called in closures one by one. Every county teachers’ organization continued the walkout.

In these uncertain times, such solidarity in the face of confusion is rare. Yet 33,000 teachers and school employees in one of America’s most overlooked states are showing us how it is done. Despite differences in personal identity and political ideology, West Virginia’s public sector employees (and the residents supporting them) are emboldened by their love for one another and the state’s communities to persist in seeking a just solution to this crisis of finance and governance.

When West Virginians work together for justice, Montani Semper Liberi is more than a motto. It is a reflection of the freedom that comes from living in diverse unity. May West Virginia always be my heart-home, and may West Virginians — and all people — continue discovering what it means to be a free people who live their lives for one another.

Kelley Burd-Huss is a West Virginia-raised and -educated writer and attorney. 

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