Beauty in Battered Places

Denise Giardina

“THE CHURCH radicalized me,” celebrated author and ordained Episcopal deacon Denise Giardina once said, describing how she sees herself as both social activist and servant minister. “The phrase in the prayer book is ‘Interpret the world to the church and the church to the world.’ It’s a totally different way to advocate, with a spiritual point of view.”

This philosophy has shown up in her bestselling novels, published over her long career, such as Storming Heaven (1987) and The Unquiet Earth (1992), which chronicle the history and social impacts of coal mining in Giardina’s native Appalachia; Saints and Villains (1999), which tells the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance against Hitler and the Nazis; and, most recently, Emily’s Ghost (2010), a reimagining of Emily Brontë’s story and how her life was changed by her encounter with an ardent member of the clergy.

Shortly before her recent retirement from teaching creative writing at a West Virginia college, Giardina talked with Jason Howard, author of A Few Honest Words and coauthor of Something’s Rising, about her literary career, social justice activism, and her time in the late 1970s in Washington, D.C., as a member of Sojourners community (the intentional Christian community that founded Sojourners magazine and other ministries).

Jason Howard: When were you part of the Sojourners community and how long were you there?
Denise Giardina: I was a student at Virginia Theological Seminary from fall 1976 until spring 1979. At the end of my first year (1977), I volunteered to be the seminary contact for an action Sojourners organized on confronting the U.S. government for supporting regimes who torture. I kept contact with those folks, and the next year I began to get more involved with their activities, as well as rehabbing a row house that would house community members. I helped hang a lot of dry wall!

My last year of seminary, I interned as a tenant organizer at Sojourners for my required fieldwork, and lived off campus at Sojourners. I left then to do my deacon year in southern West Virginia, trying to get the Episcopal Church involved in land ownership issues. When that didn’t work, I went back to Sojourners in the summer of 1980 and spent another year and a half there. I was a member of the community while working for the Episcopal Peace Fellowship at the Washington National Cathedral.

What are some memories of your time there?
I mentioned the dry wall already! The neighborhood was on the 14th Street corridor that had been totally burned down during the riots over Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. We were supposedly a high crime area, although none of us had a problem except when the police came in and disrupted areas where people were dealing drugs. Usually we knew where those areas were and just avoided them. We were the crazy white people in the neighborhood, running a food co-op, helping tenants fight their landlords, running a daycare center for neighborhood kids. We often had people who had been evicted living with us in our houses for a time until they could find permanent housing. Part of my job was helping organize the national campaign for a nuclear freeze.

We lived on $15 a month personal spending money. We learned where there were free activities in D.C. We went to a local bar, Millie and Al’s, ordered a beer, and waited until other people left behind a slice or two of pizza in a pan that we’d scavenge. We took turns cooking healthy meals, often using food scavenged from dumpsters. I felt like I was in a Christian version of the Marine Corps. I loved it.

What led you to join the Episcopal Church and be ordained as a deacon?
I am an Anglophile. I’ve always been fascinated by Great Britain. I grew up Methodist. When I was in college I spent a semester in England. I learned about John Wesley’s time at Oxford, and also that he always considered himself an Anglican. I went to Church of England services and fell in love with the liturgy. When I returned home, I found the local Episcopal church had a new activist rector, so I started going to church there. As I spent more time in that parish and took more and more classes, I realized I needed to go to seminary.

You ran for governor of West Virginia as the Mountain Party candidate in 2000. How much of your candidacy was rooted in spirit—in other words, did you feel called to run?
I suppose in a sense—but not because I expected any positive result. I hoped to call attention to the horror of mountaintop removal [MTR]. It wasn’t even talked about much at that time. It did finally get some attention on TV and in some national and international newspapers and magazines. My running didn’t work [in stopping MTR]. But there are plenty of examples in the Bible of things that didn’t work. We’re not guaranteed success. In fact, what happened to Jesus suggests we should expect just the opposite. Go figure. For whatever reason, it seems doing the right thing is destined to lose. The mountains are still being destroyed.

It’s been nearly 14 years since your candidacy. How have things changed in that time? How do you view West Virginia—and Appalachia as a whole—today?Things have changed for the worse, at least in West Virginia. The liberal wing of our politicians has been decimated. Republicans are taking over. In Kentucky I’m happy with the governor’s efforts on Obamacare. But overall, Appalachia is still controlled by coal. Any government entity could regulate coal if they would. But they won’t. Which indicates the control this industry has over government. As for resistance, I frankly see very little happening that is working. There have been some victories in court, but that’s about the only place there’s been any success at all.

How are Appalachia’s social and political problems connected to the issues that the country as a whole is facing?
The drug culture that is growing in Appalachia is devastating; it is for people what MTR is for mountains. No hope. I do think the rest of the country has some hope of reversing the attacks on working people and the middle class, especially thanks to growing diversity. Here, we are still owned by absentee companies, influenced by fundamentalist churches, with no political activism that has any impact.

You have become more outspoken in your criticism of modern Appalachian culture in recent years, but you continue to live in Charleston, W.V. Why do you stay?
It’s hard for me to answer that. I came back to make sure I was here at the end of my parents’ lives. I did think it might make a difference in other ways if I came back. But it really hasn’t, that I can see. And I stay because this is the cheapest place to live in the country; I frankly can’t afford to live anywhere else.

There’s a part of me that says I would stay even if offered the chance to leave. My soul is deeply invested in this place, and after all these years it’s hard to imagine being away from it. I also think I might be tempted to leave. I would love to live again in D.C. or the New York City area. But who can say? And since it’s a moot question anyway, perhaps it’s better to just be here and take as much joy as I can from this poor, battered place. Because there is joy—down-to-earth people, low crime, accessible institutions, beautiful rivers and mountains.

In Emily’s Ghost, Emily Brontë says, “Perhaps ... God prefers tormented love. It is more interesting than contentment.” What do you mean by that? Do you think God wants us to be content?
I think God wants us to be challenged, not just in love, but in every area. How else would we grow?

Your Emily is depicted as being a bit of a religious radical, especially considering her opinion of heaven. Is this based in fact? Why were you interested in exploring this side of her life?
I took this from Wuthering Heights. I think it’s central to the novel. Catherine imagines herself kicked out of heaven by the angels and landing back on the moors. I think she’s rebelling against that very silly notion of heaven as some sort of perfection with streets of gold. As John Milton shows in “Paradise Lost,” paradise, whether the Garden of Eden or heaven, is boring and in fact robs us of our humanity because it takes our freedom away. Emily Brontë saw this as well. My hope is that whatever awaits us is not like that; else we would be, as Milton said, “artificial Adams.”

You’re on the cusp of retiring from teaching. Do you have any big plans? What do you hope to do more of in retirement?
I want to write.

What are you writing at the moment?
I’m working on a bit of a memoir, which may or may not be interesting to anyone but me. I’m also researching a novel about two 20th century figures, Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler and presidential candidate John W. Davis (from West Virginia). Butler was a very popular Medal of Honor winner who was involved in a number of imperialist military campaigns in Central America, the Philippines, and China. Over the years he began to feel that the Marines were not being used to protect the country but to protect the economic interests of big corporations like Standard Oil and United Fruit.

After he retired, he claimed he was approached by some Wall Street interests connected to the DuPonts and J.P. Morgan in order to entice him to lead a military coup against FDR. He blew the whistle on this and testified about it to the House Un-American Activities Committee. But the matter was hushed up after that, and it is still a mystery how serious this plot was.

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