It turns out “Dante” isn’t just a medieval Italian poet. The name also signifies a tiny coal town in Wise County, Virginia. There, the name is pronounced Dant; the “e” is silent. Dante, Virginia, is named after William Joseph Dante, who provided the money to build the town’s first post office.
Even so, the association between Dante, Virginia, and Dante the Italian poet is apt. The poet wrote Inferno as the first book of his Divine Comedy. Inferno depicts hell as nine spiraled circles of suffering, each of which draws hell’s residents further from the presence of God. Inferno’s hell includes flame, heat, and dusty ash, but most importantly it is characterized by despair.
The history of Dante, Virginia is not so different. Its spiraling cycle of poverty began when people arrived a century ago to work in the coal mines. Since then, generations have been born and died never leaving the hollows and bottom lands of which the town consists. The heat from mine blasting was surely like hell. Men suffered and died from black lung caused by coal dust. Illiteracy continues to be rife, and despair is almost overwhelming.
I know about Dante, Virginia, because I’ve just returned from a mission trip there alongside twenty-two senior high youth and nine adult leaders. We worked on four houses, accomplishing everything from clearing brush to putting in an entirely new kitchen. In the dilapidated trailer in which my team labored—home to three adults and three children—we donned breathing masks and gloves to repair a child’s room that had black mold hanging from the ceiling and holes in the outside walls through which snakes and hornets could enter at will. The living conditions were, indeed, like hell.
There is, however, one crucial difference between Dante’s Inferno and Dante, Virginia. In the center of Inferno’s hell one finds Satan, forever beating his wings. The very icon of despair lives in the heart of hell, ensuring that those trapped there will be separated from God forever.
But in the heart of Dante, Virginia, instead of the Devil there resides a perfectly pink, clean, three-week-old baby boy. He lives in the home in which my team worked last week. The little basinet in which the baby sleeps is the only new piece of furniture in the home. I have no idea where his parents got it. He is a blessed child, and our incessant hammering and sawing barely fazed him.
The baby’s name is Dominic. His mother was awed when I explained to her that Dominic is a derivation of Dominus, which means Lord. It is the Latin term we use to describe the Lord Jesus, and the shining, healthy presence of Dominic in the midst of such despairing conditions reminded me of the baby Jesus at the Nativity, resting in the deplorable conditions of an animal barn.
In Dante, Virginia, as in Bethlehem, the presence of the baby signifies the redeeming presence of God in the heart of things. Dominic reveals that God is found even where despair seems to reign. Those of us who were serving as Christ’s hand and feet in that place found Christ already there, waiting for us.
Last week in Dante, we saw hope kindled that hell can be dispelled. On the last day of our mission trip, when Dominic’s grandmother saw the tangible change for the better in the living conditions of her grandchildren, she wept and said over and over, “I am blessed; I am blessed.” Just as Dominic’s mother was awed when she learned the origin of his name, I was awed by the hope and faith of his grandmother.
God is present in even in the Inferno. When we serve as Christ’s hand and feet, we meet God there. I learned this lesson while serving alongside a remarkable group of youth and adult leaders. It is a lesson I was taught by the unexpected presence of Dominic, sleeping peacefully as walls were literally falling down around him. It is a lesson I pray I never forget.