Secretary Burwell’s West Virginia and Episcopal roots

The New York Times profiles the newest Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell. She grew up in Hinton, West Virginia where she and her family attended Ascension Episcopal Church.

The profile suggests the connection between the challenges the church faces in maintaining its Gospel witness in rural areas and the economic and social changes that are affecting these communities.

The Burwells’ children — Helene, 6, and Matthew, 4 — were baptized, like their mother, at Ascension Episcopal Church in Hinton, where Ms. Burwell’s father, William Mathews, a retired optometrist, presided when there was no minister. Ms. Burwell was an acolyte and her sister, Stephanie, played the organ. The Burwells’ children stay each summer with their godmothers, Ms. Giles and Kristi Scott, another childhood friend, to enjoy the same idylls their mother did — swimming at Pipestem Resort State Park, eating on the river at Kirk’s or Dairy Queen, watching movies at the restored Ritz.

But also evident here, three decades after Ms. Burwell left for Harvard, is the impact of the economic dislocation, brain drain and drug use that have ravaged so many towns. Like elsewhere, some locals blame Walmart’s arrival in nearby Beckley for the demise of downtown Hinton.

A shrunken, aging population has lately been restoring what it can of a once thriving community. Yet amid the quaint results, apparent drug sellers and users linger on Third Avenue.

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