December 2, 2020

The Gospel for Appalachia I

I have 2 or 3 posts about The Gospel for Appalachia that I want to share. This first one introduces the unique aspects of this region and the reasons I am here.

The past few days, most of America has been watching–or at least aware of–the tragedy of the 12 perished coal miners in the Sago coal mine in West Virginia. In the coverage, with its constant scenes of the Sago Baptist Church, interviews with pastors, friends and family members, the world has caught one of its very, very rare glimpses of the world where I live and work: the mountains of Appalachia.

According to published statistics, I live in one of the poorest places in America. Clay County has the fourth lowest median family income in America, and its neighbor Owsley County is third. Eight of the top twenty counties in this category are in my immediate vicinity. Other statistical studies verify what I can see on any day: children growing up in my corner of Appalachia are often growing up in a third world of poverty within our prosperous United States.

As viewers looked in on this Appalachian tragedy, they saw, however, much of what is good here. There is intense regional and family loyalty here. (Please note that the owner of the mine was a Hatfield, just to remember what these intense family loyalties have meant in the past.) There is a deep commitment to caring for one another through difficult times. There is tremendous respect for elders. Religious faith is everywhere, and often plays a role in community life that would drive the ACLU to declare a state of emergency.

Appalachia has long stirred ambivalent feelings among Americans. America’s prosperity has brought all kinds of self-justifications, but it has also brought a sense that some parts of our own country have been left behind. The problems of Appalachia exist alongside its family values and church-centered communities.

For example, the big news throughout southeastern Kentucky these days is Operation U.N.I.T.E., a federally funded effort in the war on drugs, particularly meth and other drugs commonly produced and consumed in rural areas. “Conservative” Republican Congressman Hal Rogers is spending millions sending the DEA into southeastern Kentucky counties to press a strategy of community involvement, law enforcement, education and treatment. In communities frustrated by the corruption of law enforcement and the terrible toll of rampant, violent drug trade and drug use on every aspect of life, U.N.I.T.E. has been welcome.

This is just one in a long history of efforts to improve life in this part of the world by the use of the resources of the federal government. There are signs that U.N.I.T.E. has done much good in the short-term, particularly in raising the levels of community interest, involvement and hope. Still, Appalachia has proven resistant to short-term fixes based on infusions of money and outsiders. It is impossible for me to imagine that the deep-seated problems of this area will be substantially changed in 25 or even 50 years. Appalachia’s problems go deeper than drugs and poverty. They extend into the deepest levels of a community’s understanding of itself and the world.

It is not unusual to see local pastors on the front pages of local newspapers, receiving large checks from Rogers for the funding of local drug treatment centers. The role of community pastors in Appalachia is far more significant than the average pastor in suburbia. It is more akin to the role of the African-American pastor in his/her community. Local newspapers are dominated by church events and columns by pastors. Funerals, revivals and evangelistic crusades are second only to high school sports as “draws” in the community.

People in Appalachia are often misunderstood in many ways. The stereotypical images of Kentucky or West Virginia hillbillies and mountaineers are, unfortunately, not entirely fantasies. Alongside the realities of poverty and ignorance, you will find Fine Arts Centers, state-of-the-art medical care, colleges and universities, beautiful homes, excellent schools and healthy local economies. When you see the good people of Appalachia, of every level of income, education and material standard of living, you are looking at people who often live lives that are unimaginable to much of America, but they are people with great pride and courage–even joy–in their way of life.

I wish that everyone in America could see Appalachia up close. When I first came here in 1980, my heart was moved and captured. It was never difficult for me to understand Jesus’ choice to minister among the poor villages of Galilee. The various kinds of oppression that Jesus knew in his world are still part of our world. If we take the time to look away from the “suburban American dream,” to the places in our culture where there are people living in generational cycles of poverty, we will be able to hear much of what Jesus says more clearly.

In 1900, a converted feudist named James Anderson Burns founded a school for the children of rural Clay County, Kentucky. That school, 107 years old this year, has been my place of ministry for 14 years. It is a unique Christian community, where students from all over the world come for an education “for time and eternity.”

In this place, I work with many people from the mountains. Our cooks, teaching staff, houseparents, construction and facilities management staffs all contain many local people. Some of them are graduates of our school. All work for wages that would seem insane to people outside our community. This school continues the dream of its founder, offering education free to all the young people of our county who choose to come here.

Our school has not “solved” the problems that surround it. But it has brought the presence of Christ into these mountains, and has brought the savor of the love of Christ into the lives of thousands of mountain people. God sustains our work, I believe, because we have been content to minister here, and to accept that this place is His place for our years of service and love.

Our school exists as one of many ministries in Appalachia. Appalachian Regional Ministries is one of our partners. Christian Appalachian Project contributes much to what we do. Alice Lloyd College shares a similar mission to our own. Frontier Nursing Service takes medical care into the mountains where it is much needed. Many other ministries, institutions and servant efforts are part of God’s work in these hills.

To the many Christians who come and stay a few days or weeks, I say….come and stay for years. Come and plant yourself in this place–a place where Jesus would be much at home with much to do.

The poverty and need of our region make it a challenging place to serve Christ. For persons looking to lay aside the “rat race” and run a very different race, Appalachia calls like Macedonia: “Come over and help us!” If you looked at the world that passed before your eyes in the Sago tragedy and wondered if that world could be a place where God is calling you, I encourage you to look further in, deeper and longer.


  1. I live near Appalachia and its culture infuses the community I live in. My company has many employees from an Appalachian background. My wife is a home-health care nurse. She’s known for her compassion for her patients and her advocacy on their behalf, but frankly dealing with them is sometimes an extreme drain. The difficulty or unwillingness to follow simple medical instructions, the distrust of doctors, the fatalistic attitude toward health, make her job very grinding sometimes. I salute anyone who can do long-term ministry in this area, you must truly have a humble heart. I love the region but frankly I can only see developing deep friendships with the small percentage of people who share my educational background, and have some extra-regional experience.

    To segue into my point, this makes me wonder – as Christians, are we obligated to seek out friendships with those we might not otherwise associate with? If there are lost people who we know, but with whom we share no interests or common experiences, are we called to develop friendships with them solely for the purpose of evangelization? If we do this, are we being phonies? Does that matter? I often feel guilty for not chatting more with some of my co-workers, but my lack of knowledge of hunting, NASCAR, tobacco farming, and related topics makes it difficult. Does my lack of interest in these things make me a snob? What’s the answer?

  2. Thank you for this column! I am an Army Brat, growing up in Germany and then Georgia, going to college in Atlanta. I began my preaching ministry in Harlan County, KY…also on the list of poorest counties and right down the road from you. Like you, I fell in love with Appalachia, though it wasn’t too hard since my dad grew up a hillbilly in East TN. Not only did I fall in love with the area, I fell in love with a local girl from Harlan County who is now my wife. I’m still preaching in Appalachia in West Virginia, though in a more urban area.
    Like you, I was glad that the good things of Appalachia were shown during the Sago disaster: the faith, family, and hard-working nature of Appalachia was shown in all its truest colors. I was waiting for the media to find some toothless Snuffy Smith lookalike to subtly make fun of, and I’m sure there was some of that based on some of the quotes I heard. I think they were waiting for a fight to break out that would reinforce the ‘wrasslin’ reputation of WV, and read over and over about a man ‘lunging’ at a mine official (as if that was an Appalachian hillbilly reaction instead of an understandable reaction from anyone going through that roller coaster). But, overall, I was proud of the way my Appalachian neighbors carried themselves, despite the horrific occasion for all the attention (but, to be honest, I wonder if the incident would have gotten so much attention if it hadn’t been a slow news cycle).

    Appalachia certainly has its problems, but they deal with it the best they can, and things are not as bad as the stereotypes suggest. As one woman born and raised in Harlan County said to me, she didn’t know she was poor until the government came in and told them. In many spiritual and non-material ways, Appalachians are much richer than some of the more affluent areas of our country: I would rather live in Appalachia than Los Angeles any day! But, you don’t see hordes of barefoot kids with no teeth wearing potato sacks, most homes have plumbing and indoor toilets and for the most part are regular homes, not tarpaper shacks, cable TV and satellite are in nearly every home (and was actually innovated in Appalachia due to the difficulty in receiving broadcasting), and there are some wonderful cultural things that you would not expect based on the stereotypes, like independent radio (WMMT), great colleges (Alice Lloyd, SECC, Pikeville College, Berea College) and so on. Even though there is a lot of poverty, there is a lot of wealth, too. Believe it or not, coal miners make a comfortable living…even a good living if in a union mine (the trouble is not low wages, but a lack of jobs, especially with the cyclical nature of mine employment and the one-industry hold of coal mining, sort of like what happens when an automotive plant closes in Flint, Michigan…when it’s the only industry, it hurts the whole town, from auto worker to florist). And, even though there is some far out Pentecostalism and snake-handling, religion is a very vital part of the community. In other words, don’t buy all the sterotypes: Appalachia is a wonderful place to live with its share of problems but also with its share of unique wonders.

    Thanks for these articles.

    Oh, and by the way to those who only hear about Appalachia on the news and weather channel, it’s pronounced Ap-a-latch-ia, with a short A in “lach” not a long A. That is the only way to pronounce it, don’t argue with me, no matter what the broadcasters say.

  3. I hope that you’re familiar with the PBS “Frontline” series titled “Country Boys” that follows two Appalachian teens as they struggle to graduate (among a host of other challenges) from “the David School.” Fascinating, as are your articles here.