Family and faith -- Trying to heal Hillbilly ties that bind in the Hills and Rust Belt

This was one call for water-leak help that the next-door neighbors in Middletown, Ohio, could not ignore.

"The landlord arrived and found Pattie topless, stoned and unconscious on her living room couch. Upstairs the bathtub was overflowing -- hence, the leaking roof," noted J.D. Vance, in his "Hillbilly Elegy" memoir about the crisis in America's working class that shaped his family.

"Pattie had apparently drawn herself a bath, taken a few prescription painkillers and passed out. … This is the reality of our community. It's about a naked druggie destroying what little of value exists in her life."

Vance was in high school at the time and dramas of this kind kept creating a dark cloud over his life. Many of his questions had moral and religious overtones, especially among people with roots back to the Bible Belt culture of the Kentucky mountains.

"Why didn't our neighbor leave that abusive man?", wrote Vance. "Why did she spend her money on drugs? Why didn't she see that her behavior was destroying her daughter?" And ultimately, "Why were all of these things happening … to my mom?"

Economic woes played a part, he said, but the elegy of hillbilly life involves psychology, morality, culture, shattered communities and families that are broken, or that never formed in the first place. Yes, there are religious issues in that mix.

"It's a classic chicken and egg problem," said Vance, reached by telephone. "Which comes first, poverty and economic problems or people making bad moral decisions that wreck marriages and homes? Clearly people -- children especially -- are caught in a vicious cycle."

Grilling the youth pastor

It's the question that preachers, teachers and parents dread, especially if they were shaped by the cultural earthquakes of the 1960s. But no one fears it more than youth ministers, who hear the private questions that young people fear to ask their elders. Youth pastors work in the no man's land between the home and the church.

This is the question: "Well, didn't you do any of this stuff when you were a kid?" The young person may be asking about sex, drinking, drugs, cheating or, perhaps, lying to parents about any of the above.

If youth ministers stop and think about it, they will realize that they usually say something like the following while trying to answer these questions, said the Rev. David "Duffy" Robbins, a United Methodist who teaches youth ministry at Eastern University near Philadelphia.

"If I answer that it's none of your business and the answer is between me and God, there's a pretty good chance you'll hear that as a 'yes,' " said Robbins, writing in Good News magazine. "If I answer 'yes' to your question, there's a pretty good chance that you'll take that as permission to make the same mistakes that I've made. If, on the other hand, I say 'no,' there's a good possibility that you might reason that then I couldn't possibly understand what you're facing or what you're going through right now.

"So, what that question amounts to is a lose-lose proposition for both of us, and I'm not willing to put us in that position, so I'm not going to answer that question."

There was a time when youth pastors -- not to mention senior ministers -- would have felt more confident answering.

There was a time when adults thought it was their duty to tell young people that some things were right and some things were wrong -- period. The assumption was that adults had a sacred duty to serve as moral examples and that was that. Candor was rarely part of the equation.

Then the pendulum swung in the other direction, said Robbins, and many religion leaders joined what is often called the "authenticity movement." The goal was to open up and level with young people in an attempt to impress them with displays of openness and vulnerability. By sharing the details of his or her own sins and temptations, the youth pastor hoped to gain credibility -- inspiring young people not to make the same errors.

But there's a problem with letting it all hang out, said Robbins.

"It so easy to get carried away and, before you know it, your whole body language and the relish with which people tell these stories can send the wrong signal. You may end up leaving a kid thinking, 'Well, I wonder if I could do something really bad like that. That sounds kind of cool.' "

The problem, he said, is that it's hard not to cross the line between honest, transparent disclosure and imprudent, naked exhibitionism. Nevertheless, it's true that young people need to hear that it's normal to struggle with sin and temptation and that there are adults who want to help them, because they have faced many of the same issues -- in the past and in the present.

"It is completely appropriate, for example, for the students in my youth group to know that I struggle with lust," noted Robbins. "On the other hand, if I continue by saying, 'In fact, Sally, your mom is a fox!' -- that crosses a line."

This kind of self-exposure has to have a purpose, said Robbins. It's a good thing for adults to acknowledge that they struggle with sin, but it can be destructive if that's the end of the story. Young people need to know that God "loves us the way that we are, but he doesn't intend to leave us as we are," he said.

"It's one thing for me to tell my youth group that I struggled with this or that sin and, with God's help, have managed to put it behind me," explained Robbins.

"It's something else to just say that I struggled and struggled and struggled and that there just doesn't seem to be a way to be forgiven by God and go on to lead a better life. ... That isn't much of a Gospel, now is it?"

The testimony of Johnny Cash

As a veteran of many Billy Graham crusades, Johnny Cash must have known the parable of the drunken airline passenger by heart.

Here's how Graham told this old, old story during his1985 South Florida crusade.

One day, the evangelist boarded an airplane at the same time as a fat, boisterous drunk who cursed up a storm and even pinched a stewardess. The crew finally wrestled the man to his seat -- right in front of Graham. Another passenger leaned over and said he ought to behave. Didn't he know who was behind him?

"You don't say," the man said. Then he turned and loudly said, "Are you Billy Graham? ... Put her there! Your sermons have sure helped me!"

After the laughter, Graham warmly introduced Cash, who added another punch line.

"I wonder," said Cash, "why he thought about introducing me right after he talked about the rowdy drunk on the airplane."

Yes, Cash knew his role as a missionary to the backsliders.

The man in black was a country kid who embraced his mother's faith, then flung it away, the hell raiser who got saved, and saved and then saved some more. Cash sang about the hope of heaven and the siren songs of hell. Time magazine put it this way: "Here was a man who knew the Commandments because he had broken so many of them."

The gritty details filled 1,500 songs and a lifetime of work in television, movies, books and nights on the road. For years, Cash prowled the stage on amphetamines and wept as he sang "The Old Rugged Cross" -- often in the same show.

Things got better after he married June Carter in 1968, a meeting of souls made in heaven, but worked out in the flesh under the parental gaze of Ezra and Maybelle Carter. These country-music pioneers not only prayed at Cash's bedside while he kicked drugs, but hung on through years of front-porch Bible study as he walked the line toward redemption.

Cash was in a spiritual war and he knew it. Thus, he constantly quoted Romans 8:13 as his favorite verse: "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live...."

The superstar also knew that millions of people were watching and waiting for him to fall. He lived in that hot spotlight until the day he died.

"I have been a professional entertainer," said Cash, at a 1989 Graham crusade in his home state of Arkansas. "My personal life and problems have been widely publicized. There have been things said about me that made people ask, 'Is Johnny Cash really a Christian?'

"Well, I take great comfort in the words of the apostle Paul who said, 'What I will to do, that I do not practice. But what I hate, that I do.' And he said, 'It is no longer I who do it, but the sin that dwells within me. But who,' he asks, 'will deliver me from this body of death?' And he answers for himself and for me, 'Through Jesus Christ the Lord.' "

This language he used in his Graham crusade testimonies was loftier than his style on stage. But the words hit home because Cash knew that his listeners knew he was there flaws and all. So he talked about his struggles with drugs -- past, present and future. He talked about the flaws in his family life. Cash named his idols and his demons and urged others to do the same.

The man in black was on the same Gospel road throughout his life, even when he detoured into the gutter, said Steve Beard, author of the Cash profile in the book "Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced 12 Musical Icons."

"This was the real Johnny Cash.