I became involved with the Appalachian Student Health Coalition when I was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt. In 1977, the summer after my graduation, I worked as a community organizer in Copperhill, Tenn., where the Coalition concentrated on environmental and occupational health issues. In the fall of 1977, one of the co-directors of the SHC resigned and I became co-director with Lori Rioux.
I have fond memories of that year — traveling the hills of East Tennessee and eastern Kentucky doing site selection for the summer of 1978. I had the opportunity to meet some of the great community leaders and organizers of that era. I met Marie Cirillo in Clairfield, Tenn. I met Myles Horton at the Highlander Center. I remember hunting for ramps (wild onions) with Byrd Duncan on the hillside behind his house. That summer of ‘78, the Student Health Coalition worked in Ashland City, Tenn. (near Nashville), White Oak, Tenn. (near Clairfield), and Whitley County, Ky.
At the end of the summer, I moved to Whitley County to continue work in the rural community of Nevisdale. I got a job in a lawn chair factory to support myself, and I worked alongside two Franciscan nuns in community organizing efforts. Through my work with the nuns, I had a revival of my own religious faith. I also learned that I was a lousy community organizer but a pretty good pastor. I went to seminary, became a minister, and tried to integrate social and political commitment into my ministry — just like those nuns did.
My wife Irene, who is a nurse practitioner, and I worked in El Salvador during that country’s civil war. Our two oldest sons were born there. After returning to the US, we worked with Central American refugees along the border in South Texas. For the last 25 years, I have been a pastor in the agricultural area of eastern Washington. Most of my social activism these days revolves around issues of immigration. I volunteer with a Latina organization which helps immigrants gain citizenship. I have lost touch with everyone from my years with the Student Health Coalition. But I haven’t lost touch with the desire for justice and social change.