Small towns, here and there


WHEELING, W.Va. — The odds are good you’ll see someone you know on screen if you attend the Friday premiere of a feature documentary focused on Moundsville. Marc Harshman, state poet laureate, is among those interviewed. So is Eugene Saunders, that city’s former mayor.

Interestingly, those who watch the film at its Pittsburgh launch next month are also likely to see someone familiar — even if they can’t put quite the same name to him. That’s the point.

John W. Miller, a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, hopes Moundsville will strike a chord with those who knew Fostoria glass and Marx toys. And, with those who knew the heydays of Donora, Pa., or Gary, Ind., or the Pittsburgh steel mills. Or, even the Belgian rustbelt south of his own hometown of Brussels.

Miller, now a Pittsburgh resident with dual American/Belgian citizenship, was in Marshall County this week, talking with Weelunk and passing out flyers advertising the premiere.

Zipping through town in the process, he pointed to Tecnocap, the last industrial manufacturer left in an area that once made everything from airplanes to the iconic Big Wheel toy. “They make pickle jar lids,” he said, jetting on to Quality Bakery Shoppe, touted by Saunders in the film as the source of the “best donut in the world.”

A chocolate donut now in one hand, Miller is in search of coffee. The high-octane interview eventually makes its way to Wheeling’s Later Alligator, where Miller has a French press and explains more about how Moundsville came to be.

“This town’s just perfect, the picture of America,” said Miller, who created the film with David Bernabo, a Pittsburgh filmmaker and artist. “It really was the greatest microcosm.”

It was, in fact, exactly what a journalist burnt out from global travel and the divisiveness of modern politics was seeking. Miller quit the Journal in December 2016 and repackaged himself as an indie writer who now hopes to tell the kind of stories that will help America heal. His freelance work ranges from a business column on global trading to opinion pieces for to the story of private reparations made to the descendants of slaves for America Magazine, a Jesuit publication.

And, there’s the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council-funded film, which, oddly enough, started with finding a paranormal shrine at a hotdog stand on the way home from covering a coal story for the Journal.

He pulled off the road that 2013 day, talked to the stand’s owner and was hooked. “I am obsessed with Moundsville,” he said with a laugh, noting he has traveled to the city so many times in the last year, his girlfriend now refers to his trips as “visiting the folks.”

A Universal Tale

That’s not so far from the truth, even though Miller’s own folks chose Europe over American cities of any size. Former Maryland residents who found a music career in Brussels in the 1970s, his parents sent Miller to French-speaking Belgian schools instead of those dedicated to the children of other American ex-pats.

He has dual citizenship and a keen eye for universal similarities as a result.

“I grew up with faded prosperity around me,” he said of seeing a Belgian rustbelt in the south of that nation. It is facing the same kind of re-invention as American manufacturing cities such as Moundsville. “I am kind of fascinated with people and how they handle that.”

In Moundsville, Miller and Bernabo found a broad cast of characters doing that very thing. There’s Saunders, the city’s first-and-only African-American mayor. He’s lived in Moundsville through the industrial boom and its 1980s implosion. There’s Alexis Martinez, a 24-year-old son of Mexican immigrants who dreams of medical school. There’s poet Harshman and a host of other elder townsmen who have obviously thought through Moundsville’s place and time at great length and depth.

And, there’s the mound that gave the city its name. Built from an estimated 3 million basket loads of soil by the Adena people, the 2,200-year-old mound’s very presence is as central to the film as it is to the city. A tourist attraction in Moundsville’s evolving economy, it is also a looming testament to the fact that times can change to the point of obliteration.

What happened to the Adena, happened to Fostoria and its industrial kin. They are gone. And, that touches Miller, who has seen communities all over the world struggling with the same loss of an era.

What happened to the Adena, happened to Fostoria and its industrial kin. They are gone. And, that touches Miller, who has seen communities all over the world struggling with the same loss of an era.

“These places really were the most prosperous places in the world. They made airplanes in Moundsville … Their toy factory was the most important one in the world,” Miller said of what disappeared locally.

That in mind, he is disappointed that much of the news narrative of such losses has focused on fallout — particularly the political (the sea change illustrated by U.S. President Donald Trump and the rise of like-minded leaders around the globe) or the epidemiological (read rampant opioid overdoses). Miller believes journalists are often missing a different story, the human-scaled one.

“I think people on the coasts, they miss how much people are grieving that loss of cultural vibrancy.”

Grief, or at least sadness, can certainly be felt in Moundsville. The loss of job opportunity. The loss of family continuity and sense of place. The loss of pride in products made well.

“It’s a story of the West right now,” Miller said. “The world’s changing. It’s roiling. To me, it feels like telling one of the biggest stories in the world.”

Not Stopping at Sad

Moundsville isn’t just a sad story, however. Miller said the reason he wanted to tell a universal tale through a specific small town was about healing and the future.

The film, indeed, presents the city in pleasant light. Tight camera shots emphasize the tidiness of neighborhoods. Soft-focus effects make even Walmart look kind of dreamy. Speakers come off as reflective and endearingly quirky.

Story arcs cover the city’s move toward tourism, particularly concerning the mound’s rich Native American history, New Vrindaban and paranormal tours at and associated with the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary. Miller also sees hope in the shared history of those who remain — the city’s population has halved to about 8,000 since its peak.

Party-centric news may be playing at McDonald’s, he said, but the real future of Moundsville isn’t as much about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as it is about that shared history and community. Reality is, he believes, the new football field at John Marshall High School, the new jail or the ethane cracker plant many city officials hope will eventually materialize just across the Ohio River.

Not to mention what’s not there yet. Will New York chefs eventually make their way into rural West Virginia, opening up shop in derelict buildings as they have in Pittsburgh? Will the “best donuts in the world” find a larger venue? Will young residents find wildly creative ways to make a living in a new economy — as some of the film subjects are already attempting? Or, will, as one Buzzfeed reader snarkily suggested in response to Miller’s opinion piece about the film, they just wise up and move to where the jobs are?

Miller doesn’t know. But, he can hope.

West Virginia, oh my home …” the aspiring banjo player literally sings over his coffee at one point. The lines are from a Hazel Dickens song he learned at Clifftop, a string band festival near the New River Gorge that he describes as Burning Man for folk musicians.

In the dead of the night, in the still and the quiet, I slip away, like a bird in flight,” the song goes on, although his coffee is long gone and the interview is winding to a close. “Back to those hills, the place that I call home.”

“Moundsville” premieres 7 p.m. Friday in the Strand, the city’s restored 98-year-old theater. Admission is $5 per person at the door or online. Beginning Dec. 15, the film can also be rented or purchased online. It will additionally be shown in Pittsburgh Jan. 17 at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Watch the trailer here.

spiritual life

I lost baby Jesus!

“I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.” Revelation 1:8

Somewhere in the dank, dark basement is a blue tub. And, in that tub is an abundance of crumpled bits of wrapping paper left over from Christmases past. And, CIMG5895_edited-1.JPGin one of those bits is the baby Jesus figurine that is usually hidden away in a buffet drawer until the morning of Dec. 25.

It’s true. I’ve somehow lost baby Jesus!

There’s no doubt a blog in that — losing the reason for the season in a house that is already decorated ABT. (All But Tree — wink, wink, grad students.) But, that isn’t where I’m going.

On Facebook, my Fresh Mercy mini-blog is presenting a name of Jesus and a corresponding scripture each weekday. Lamb of God, Light of the World, the Amen, Beloved Son, the Rock, He Who Liveth and Was Dead and so forth. Some of the name scriptures are from the Old Testament, particularly the book of Isaiah. Most are from New Testament books written by the Apostle John, one of the 12 men who spent three years or so directly ministering with Jesus.

It’s those latter verses that have captured my attention. John seems to have understood Jesus at a level that even the other disciples did not. It likely not an accident that he was the one Jesus chose for the vision of Revelation. And, John’s awareness of the fullness of Jesus’s identity is most often expressed in names that make me shiver. They’re throughout his gospel, where every action seems to be tied to one. And, in Revelation, the names fly fast and glorious, almost as if there is not enough space on the page or in the world (as John once suggested) to contain just who God the Son is.

Those thoughts were on my mind when I realized the wee figurine that we once used to set the story of the Nativity in our daughters’ minds was missing. They’re nearly grown now. They know the story. We know the story. And, it is a story far too big to be, well, contained.

So, resin baby Jesus will stay wherever he is and I am going to do my best to celebrate a Christmas and a life that lets God the Son be God. Vast, complex and full of mysterious glory.

community, spiritual life

Is there a faith/church balance?

Readers interested in balancing individual faith and church accountability may enjoy this shortened version of a news feature I did for It focuses on one young man’s regional fight to bring a global pattern of sexual abuse within one church into the light and toward an end.

Just going to the grocery store can be a challenge when your calling, your spiritual work is the pursuit of truth and justice — particularly truth about sexualweelunk spirituality catholic dissenters.JPG misconduct inside the ministry.

A breeze by the frozen green beans can yield a surprising thumbs up from a highly placed priest. Or, in another aisle, Michael Iafrate could just as likely hear the question, “Why are you attacking the church?” If not that, it could be something like, “How can you defend a church that condones criminal behavior?”

The Wheeling Jesuit grad, co-coordinator of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia, reflected on this contrast of perspectives from his unassuming office in downtown Wheeling.

“I can’t be a Catholic and not fight for a better church,” he concluded in a gentle voice that matches his John Denver-meets-Mr. Rogers vibe. “I can’t be a Catholic with my back to the people who Catholicism hurts.”

Right now, that means he, co-coordinator Jeannie Kirkhope, the committee and committee friends have a heavy focus on the sexual-misconduct revelations that are unfolding at a weekly, if not daily, pace in the news. The nearly 50-year-old, small-grant-funded group advocates for a broad variety of social-justice issues in a 20-diocese region that includes parts of Pennsylvania. A cloud of dirt from grand jury reports in that state concerning widespread priestly sexual abuse had barely settled when the scandal turned local. Really local.

The recent resignation of Bishop Michael Bransfield as head of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston under accusations of sexual misconduct toward adults and lavish living at parishioners’ expense cannot help but take center stage for the moment, Iafrate said of committee responses that have included publishing letters demanding accountability.

Since Bransfield’s resignation, more local connections to the scandal and more committee responses have followed. The nearby Steubenville, Ohio, diocese recently released a list of “credible” accusations against priests. Information about a specific Steubenville priest who impregnated an underage altar girl was also announced.

Iafrate, who had already discovered regional interconnectedness meant he knew three of the priests on the Pennsylvania lists, was on high alert. He pondered the word “credible.” He looked carefully at the story surrounding the specific priest, who was soon reported by several sources to have been volunteering with youth activities within West Virginia. He also noticed the general list had limitations he found troubling.

He specifically challenges a list detail that he suspects few outside the Catholic Church would understand. For example, in Steubenville, he said the only released names were those of “diocesan priests” attached to a specific parish. Other Steubenville-area priests — such as Franciscans, Dominicans or Jesuits serving in various capacities — were not included, he said.

That distinction had him on the phone with the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, which has promised to release a similar list of accusations made in West Virginia over the last 50 years. Will all priests be included, he asked on behalf of the committee. The local diocese, under interim leadership by a bishop from outside the state, assured him they will. Does that include priests who cross diocese borders to volunteer, such as the one associated with the teen pregnancy? Again, Iafrate was pleased with the response.

The local diocese, he said, has, in fact, already gone on to issue an announcement about that priest’s in-state activities in both internal parochial school communications and to the general church membership in recent days.

Pleased? Yes. But, Iafrate said the committee is not yet satisfied. “I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.”

“I would like to see the diocese be more transparent about what they know, how they handled abuse, how they failed to handle the abuse.” — Michael Iafrate

He would also like to see external civil investigations in addition to the internal ones promised by the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. The committee may approach state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey to request he follow up on a recent mention of interest in an investigation.

This blend of internal and external advocacy is also expressed at, a website the committee manages. There, diocese news releases are available alongside secular reporting from story leaders like the Boston Globe and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Indeed, Iafrate said he depends on such secular news, which some church officials have called “media attacks,” to give the issue broader context. He pointed to a specific joint Globe/Inquirer report printed in early November. It gave extensive details about the allegations against Bransfield that he has not seen reported elsewhere.

Iafrate — wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Be the church you want to see in this world,” and chipping away at the dissertation stage of a doctorate in theology — pauses for a deep breath at this point in the interview. Keeping that kind of advocacy in balance with his own Catholicism is what it is. He notes his “very Catholic” family includes a priest and a deacon and that he recently had his infant daughter baptized into the faith.

“I don’t think the truth is an attack. Jesus said the truth will set us free,” he said. “I love the church as the people of God. The Catholic faith is beautiful. It orients my life. I think it changes the world when it’s operating the right way. … But, when the church is hypocritical (it) actually hurts people through the way it behaves.”


Moo-free salmon bake

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Charles de Gaulle, French resistance leader and lover of democracy

The thing I have missed most since going dairy free is cheese, particularly all those creamy sauces that put the “comfort” in comfort food come snowy weather. Thanks to my vegan friends out there, that cheesy joy is back!

Moo-free Salmon Bake, while obviously not vegan or even vegetarian*, uses a nut-baseCIMG5836_edited-1.JPGd “cheese” that may taste better than the real thing. Enjoy!

Moo-free Salmon Bake

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Coat a baking dish (a Dutch oven or 9-by-13-inch Pyrex dish works well) with coconut oil or some similar dairy-free alternative. Set aside.

Put one can of drained, wild-caught salmon into a medium bowl and crush skin and bone bits well. (I crush rather than remove such parts. One, if I’m going to eat meat, I don’t want to waste. Two, those bones are loaded with nutrition.) Set aside.

In a blender or food processor, mix 1 cup water, 1 cup unsalted cashews, 1-2 Tablespoons nutritional yeast (has cheesy flavor) and 1 teaspoon salt. Set aside.

Cook one 12- to 16-ounce box of small wheat or gluten-free pasta (like rotini or elbows) according to directions. Return pasta to cooking pot and add the salmon and the cashew sauce. Mix. Taste. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Add 1 large egg and 1 cup frozen sweet peas and mix again.

Put the mix into the prepared dish. Top with crumbled rice squares (the gluten-free cereal) and a light sprinkle of paprika. Bake 30 minutes and serve while warm. (Oddly enough, one daughter and I like to add ketchup on top for full-on comfort food.)

* Vegans and vegetarians: You know what to do. Leave the salmon out and, for vegans, substitute for the egg. 🙂 It’s still yummy. Blessings!