September 19, 2020

The Shepherd of These Hills

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Other IM essays on Appalachia.

The Gospel and Appalachia
The Gospel and Appalachia: Can The Culture Change?
The Gospel and Appalachia: Four Christian Responses

Most IM readers know that I live in southeastern Kentucky, in a particularly poverty and crime affected area of Appalachia. In economic and social studies of crime and poverty, our county and congressional district are among the ten worst affected areas of the United States.

You don’t have to be a detective to see sin, poverty and their terrible effects where I live. The last three years have featured the arrest and conviction of large numbers of public officials for involvement in the vote-buying and the distribution of drugs in our county. Jaw dropping visible poverty is common (though we are far from the worst I’ve seen in Eastern Kentucky.) Social problems of every kind are plentiful. Ignorance, unemployment, exploitation, oppression: these aren’t concepts, but realities here.

Of course, Appalachia has a lot of good Christian people. The Christians who live and work here in southeastern Kentucky are dedicated believers. They see and experience a lot of pain, suffering and loss in this culture. It is a tough place to raise your children. Schools are often not good. The dropout rate is astronomical. Medical care often requires lots of travel. Economic and educational opportunities are few. Churches are usually small, clergy are almost always untrained and church splits are very, very common.

When I go to my hometown, a large and financially prosperous urban/suburban tri-city area in western Kentucky, the Christian culture is very different than what I experience in southeast Kentucky. Large churches. Multiple staffs. Large and active programs for youth and senior adults. Sports leagues. Concerts. “Mission” trips to the beach and special events at the amusement park. Large (and expensive) private Christian schools.

In our corner of Appalachia, these things are much less common (though not totally absent.) There are some great churches and prosperous ministries. Churches sometimes will work together for a Vacation Bible school, but we’re always conscious that mission trips come to our corner of the world.

But Christians are visible and audible in our culture. They have community revivals. They lead in anti-drug efforts. They are funding a Teen Challenge drug rehab program in our county that is very impressive. They coordinate community prayer. Christian Appalachian Project has a large and diverse presence in Appalachia. The ministry where I serve has been here for over 110 years, educating any local student free. There are a small number of healthy, ministering churches, though they are usually in the cities, not the rural areas.

And the Christians here are preaching. Preaching hard, preaching loud, preaching all the time. Many Holiness and Pentecostal churches have 4 services a week. Local Christian radio and television is big here, though aside from K-Love, most of it is heavily influenced by Appalachian cultural forms and preferences. (In other words, if you don’t like twangy Bluegrass and “barking” preachers, it won’t be for you.”

Just as a small measurement of how Appalachian Christian culture is different, I’ll tell a few stories.

I’ve been here more than 17 years. I preach several times a week at my school. Not bragging, but I’m an above average public speaker…in my context. Out in the community, even if I go in totally unprepared and turn up the local color in my delivery to the max, I am still too much of a “schooled” preacher. I rarely do pulpit supply. Now, if I came in and prophesied that the devil was going to be bound and cast out of the county, the elderly would be healed and everyone’s son or daughter would be saved because God showed it to me in a dream, I’d be too busy to do much of anything else around here.

One of the few pulpit supplies that I did last year- actually about 5 Sundays- was in a church that seated at least 600. The building had been extensively renovated and expanded, actually keeping an old sanctuary intact, but building a new sanctuary on the front of it. (Experienced pastors can figure that one out.)

There were about 30 people present. The music was led by a very gifted worship leader who was able to sit down at the piano and lead contemporary worship…..and it was also led by an older member who led the same 3-4 old time gospel songs each time. Again, experienced pastors can decode this rather easily.

(Interestingly, churches in Appalachia that create musical worship that appeals to young people and young adults typically draw crowds. Here, where preaching is often completely undependable and literacy is low, music can be a lot more significant than you might think.)

Another church invited our school’s choir to visit. I was filling in as the speaker in the absence of our President. The church was in a large town nearby, and the building was beautiful. It seated almost 800 and was first class in every way. I counted 110, minus our group. A brand new building….empty. A massive investment in a lavish building in one of the poorest areas of America; an area where thousands of people would never enter such a building simply because they are dressed in the clothing of the poor.

As I said earlier, Christian Appalachian Project- interdenominational, but Catholic in origin- does it work here of practical servanthood and mercy ministry. They build and rebuild homes. They hold camps and take supplies to those burned and blooded out of their homes. They distribute food to the hungry and malnourished. They teach job skills and adult education. CAP is invested here.

The ministry where I serve is rooted in a desire for peacemaking in what was one of the most violent areas of America. From the turn of the century through the mid-30’s, “wars” between families and alliances continued generation after generation. Our founder, a converted feudist, brought a vision of Christian education to the mountains. He believed that if children would learn to love one another, the violence would stop. Over a century and many challenges later, his vision still burns in us as we minister to students from all around the world and all around America, always keeping the doors open to the young people of Clay County to come and receive a private Christian education as a gift. We preach, worship, teach, work, serve, share resources and bear witness to the Gospel as a community rooted in this place.

I recently got word that this Saturday buses from “prophetic churches” all over the area will come to our little village to hold a weekend “revival” in the park down the block from me. They will worship, preach, proclaim a prophetic vision, bind the devil, do spiritual warfare against the powers they see oppressing our community through drugs, violence and darkness. I am not of this particular brand of evangelical Pentecostalism, but I call them brothers and sisters, and I have no doubt that God loves this corner of the world and wants his Kingdom to be seen here.

Seventh Day Adventists have been here for years, operating a hospital with an explicit Christian witness. Christians are taking in orphans in homes throughout the mountains. God’s people are here; scattered, but here and serving him.

I could go on and on.

I look out at all of this, and one thing touches me: All of us are following the same Jesus.

But who is this Jesus we follow? What is his Kingdom?

Those who sing?

Those who build buildings?

Those who educate and live in community?

Those who preach and prophesy?

Those who give food and put on roofs?

Those who run the radio and television stations?

Those who want to evangelize the lost?

Those who want to help the addict?

Those who visit in the jails?

Those who cast out evil spirits?

Those who care for the orphans, the old and the sick?

Those who preach to students from Appalachia and all over the world?

Do they all follow, love, worship, bow down before the same Jesus?

If you stand still for a moment in the shadow of an Appalachian twilight, he is the one who walks these roads, lifts up the hills and paints the skies. It is his rainbow after the storm, and his mist rising from the valleys. He paints the colors of the fall and he comes in the power of the flood.

He is the one who hears the cry of the child in hunger, the abused woman, the man in the throes of drug addiction, the sexually abused girl, the boy trapped in ignorance, the old and sick, the despairing and confused, the poor and vulnerable.

He is the one who seeks the lost. He is the great shepherd of the hills.

Somehow, after all these years of living in Appalachia, I am beginning to understand the gift that it is giving me: I am seeing Jesus. Not the standard issue Jesus of the religious establishment, but Jesus as he is resurrected and living in this broken world. He is not hard to find here, once you have begun to lose your attraction to the propaganda of those who sell Jesus as a symbol of the anti-Kingdom of God. He is not hard to find once you begin to recognize the acts of love, sacrifice, giving, perseverance and risk that are his sure and certain fingerprints.

He is everywhere, this Jesus who seeks us and reconciles us, but among the poor and the desperate he is not obscured. His voice is recognizable here, even in the midst of brokenness and deep darkness.

His churches may not be strong, but God’s Kingdom does not equal his churches. His Kingdom is here and the great gift of an Appalachian ministry is to begin to understand that Kingdom in the most unlikely of places.

Pray for us here. Come over and help us. If you stay, do not be surprised if you discover that the treasure truly was in a field that everyone else thought was worthless.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this piece, iMonk. Makes me really stop – and think about where I’m now living. (Which has more than a few things in common with the area you’re living in.)

    Now I can better understand your thoughts on many things (including church growth). A little bit of context goes a long way toward understanding! 🙂

  2. yes, thank you for this post…it does go a long way toward understanding.

  3. i have long believed that all spirituality (like politics) is local. the gift we give to the world is the view of God that comes from what we see as we look up from our roots. of course, we must never fall into parochialism, but also receive the gifts that others share from their unique perspectives. thank you for eloquently sharing your gift through this (and many other) posts.

  4. Memphis Aggie says

    I agree, this kind of context helps.

  5. sue kephart says

    Thanks for reminding us of the rural poor in our own country.

  6. That’s a BEAUTIFUL photo of the mountains you included with your thoughtful post, Michael. We live in a truly amazingly beautiful world in spite of all its dangers and in spite of the ignorance and hatefulness so many people present. Thank God for the people presenting Jesus to the world.

  7. Michael, you bring back boyhood memories. My father was a pastor of a small church in a coal mining community called Mahan, West Virginia in 1950,51. Mahan is nothing but a turnoff on the Interstate today. Nothing is left of the mining operation that was there. But he also would often go off and preach in the hills of Kentucky. I can remember distinctly a place called Turkey Creek, Ky. We’d go up into the hills and visit families living in shacks. Newspapers would be stuffed in the cracks of their homes to keep the snow from blowing in. Pigs, goats, chickens often shared the dwellings. I learned more about poverty than any textbook could teach me.
    They were rough group of people there in those hills of West Virginia and Kentucky. And you are right, very clanish. My mother was a well trained vocalist with a great soprano voice. She had years of training in voice and piano. But the mountain folk just couldn’t stomach her. She was to polished on the piano and her voice “wiggled” too much (vibrato) and she didn’t sing through her nose like you are supposed to sing. And of course, coming from California we definitely were weird outsiders.
    People were killed for coming to dad’s services. Spousal abuse was rampant. Liquor was the main problem back in the late forties and early fifties when we were there.
    But it was beautiful country and a fun time for a little boy running around the sand hills in the train yards where the coal cars were stored. It’s a wonder I wasn’t killed by sand caving in on me.
    I’ll never forget the great Sunday afternoon potlucks. As poor as these people work, they would bring the some of the most delicious food you’ve ever eaten to those Sunday afternoon meals.
    Thanks Michael for bring back a flood of memories. I could tell a ton of stories about my dad’s experiences there, but it’s your blog.
    God bless
    Rich

  8. TypoPanther says

    Very Ignatian of you. Finding God in all things. 🙂

  9. ….i applaude you imonk for your efforts to make a difference in your little part of the world…you bring up a point that i often struggle with and i havnt been able to solve it or hear a reasonable explanation heretofor….its the vast difference that i percieve in the Jesus..say..of appalacia and the Jesus of..say..lexington…i think most readers will understand what im trying to say here…my Jesus doesnt sing with a twang…He doesnt ‘BARK” the beatitudes or handle snakes and He”s not overly emotional…i have trouble reconciling the differences….how can they both be “right”?…im very serious…

  10. ProdigalSarah says

    Wonderful post as usual.

    Back when my mother was growing up in rural Alabama moonshine was the scourge. Like today’s meth, moonshine meant families suffered horrendous neglect and abuse. I could be completely off base but have always thought this was one reason Southern Baptists took a strong position against alcohol. They saw what moonshine did in those rural areas.

  11. ProdigalSarah says

    Regarding the music, I always thought the truest gospel I heard as a child was in those old hymns. Maybe I’m showing my age saying this but I can’t see how the modern praise songs could have the same lasting impact. But perhaps they do, and they will be what the young person remembers during difficult times. Well, I hope so.

  12. Feliz Navidad says

    What a magnificent post! I am a Pittsburgher — we are officially one-third mid-west, one-third northeast, and one-third Appalacia. My heart knows the where of your story.

  13. Great piece. I live in WV and I have made some of the same observations with a few differences. Primarily, I am concerned about the number of believers abandoning the traditional church setting. Most of the Christians I know have left the rural churches for one reason or another. Its not because they want to its just that they have “had enough” of doing church…Spirituality is alive and well however and mixed with their sadness (and they are sad because they have not found a local assembly) is the newness of their relationship with their Lord, something they weren’t getting in the country churches here in this poor part of WV.

  14. Thanks for putting your ministry into your own context. A decade ago I spent some time in Haiti, and the poverty is crushing. The real culture shock was in returning to the States. It’s a bit difficult living here in the suburbs of San Francisco and attending a church in an upscale bedroom community to fully realize the poverty that exists elsewhere. Yes there are pockets of poor neighborhoods, but overall the poverty isn’t necessarily economic here.

  15. My grandfather was a church planter in Talcum, KY and the church he planted back in the 60’s is still there.

    My Mother spent her formative years in the hills and mountains of Eastern KY. She was a tom boy who loved to play outside and help grandpa who was also a carpenter.

    Very many interesting experiences from that time period.

    One Sunday morning in the middle of Grandpa’s sermon a man walked in the front door of the church with a loaded rifle and pointed it right at grandpa. Declared that he was going to shoot him. The man was intoxicated, and was angry at my grandpa for exhorting him to quit drinking so much the day before. Now he was drunk and coming after grandpa.

    Grandpa calmly walked down from behind the pulpit and strode towards the man. When he reached the intruder, he simply put his hand out to shake the man’s hand. The man put the gun down and reached out to take grandpa’s hand. Grandpa shook it and also reached for and took the gun from the man.

    My Mom and her sisters attended a one-room school house where the teacher would just have the students come up to the board while he sat at his desk and drank, what he called, cough medicine, until he was three sheets to the wind.

    Thanks monk for the great article. God bless you all as you minister in the place where God calls you.

  16. Outstanding! As a former CAP volunteer and employee, your blog brought back many fond memories of my few short years there. My body may no longer be in Appalachia, but my heart will always be there.

  17. Haven’t talked with you in a long time, Monk, but have been once again reading your offerings for the last few months and my absence has had more to do with my own journey than with any objection to your thoughts. I’m that Pentecostal, 60-something year-old man in northern Kentucky who left his church after three decades, settled in on the back pew at a nearby AOG assembly, and is mostly fed nowadays through monthly visits to a rescue mission and the local Youth Detention Center. You stir my heart with this one since, although the culture and the environment may be quite different in that section of my home state, the story, itself, could be told about here where I live. For me, if we are missing it as the Body of Christ, it is in failing to grasp that the “kingdom of God” equates to Christ “in” me and we are just too busy trying to clone the world to “me” rather than He…

  18. I’ve grown up on the “other side of the ridge” from Kentucky — Virginia, in the shadow of the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge. My husband is from Wayne County, WV. Everything you say in this post resonates with me. (Sorry — I do happen to like bluegrass and old-time music! Hubby won’t play any other style. I just wish I could flat-foot.) We don’t have as much of the extreme poverty you describe, though there are pockets of it, but ignorance and apathy are rampant.

    The small rural churches are a study in contrasts: they are either dead/dying, or, if you find the right one, alive and vibrant and reaching out to the community around them. I think the latter ones have the potential to set the new standard for what it means to be a Christian in your community.

  19. ….i went back and read some uf the imonks previous articles about appalachia and as i sit here and contemplate this i have more questions than answers…i guess just dont get it…why isnt the the presence of God changing the people?..we proclaim a gospel of transformation yet its as if God isnt trying to make them ‘different’…if i can use a previous phrase here ‘THERE”S A DISCONNECT”….the JESUS im being taught isnt the one being taught in appalachia…not even close…WHY?..WHY NOT?…how can Culture make a difference in the message of Christ?..i could go on but ive made my point i think………i dont know…….

  20. Great essay, Michael. When I read:

    “If you stand still for a moment in the shadow of an Appalachian twilight, he is the one who walks these roads, lifts up the hills and paints the skies. It is his rainbow after the storm, and his mist rising from the valleys. He paints the colors of the fall and he comes in the power of the flood.

    “He is the one who hears the cry of the child in hunger, the abused woman, the man in the throes of drug addiction, the sexually abused girl, the boy trapped in ignorance, the old and sick, the despairing and confused, the poor and vulnerable.

    “He is the one who seeks the lost. He is the great shepherd of the hills.”

    …I thought I could hear, for just a moment (and I mean this in the best possible way) Vestal Goodman singing “He Walks the Dark Hills” — a powerful, stirring song.

    And a powerful, stirring essay.

  21. My husband, who is a regular reader of yours, pointed me to this post. As a child of Appalachia who has traveled many miles from home and back again, I am certain that Jesus is more visible in those mountains, those people, that music, and those Sunday church potlucks than he is in many places in America. There are so few places in our affluent society where the depths of brokenness and the heights of beauty exist side-by-side. I am glad you are accepting the gifts Appalachia has to give to you and thankful for the ways that you are investing in her children.

  22. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    …I thought I could hear, for just a moment (and I mean this in the best possible way) Vestal Goodman singing “He Walks the Dark Hills” — a powerful, stirring song. — Bob Brague

    With me, it’s John Bethancourt and Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer.

  23. ProdigalSarah says

    Mike “….i went back and read some uf the imonks previous articles about appalachia and as i sit here and contemplate this i have more questions than answers…i guess just dont get it…why isnt the the presence of God changing the people?..we proclaim a gospel of transformation yet its as if God isnt trying to make them ‘different’…”

    Romans 10:17 Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ

    Unfortunately, religion is often taught instead of the word of Christ. They are told the Bible says do this or don’t do that. They are taught a better world awaits in Heaven, after death.

    They are taught that if they live right they will meet Jesus after death. The get-right-with-Jesus message is about being good. I heard it over and over again in churches as a child. The emphasis was on behavior instead of relationship with Christ. If faith is about faith in a life after death, there’s not much reason to change present circumstance. The message boils down to life stinks but have faith that a better life awaits after death.

    The message that transforms lives:

    The tomb was empty!

    Christ has risen!

    Christ is with us today in our present reality.

    The Kingdom of God is within us and among us right now!

    This message can only be taught with credibility by people who believe it and live it. The message may not be understood unless it is repeated and demonstrated by people who know firsthand that Christ changes lives, because it goes against what they have always been taught. That is, life doesn’t change.

    I have heard this so often from my rural Alabama relatives, this dull acceptance that life is pain and heartbreak and no matter what we do it will be pain and heartbreak. The only hope is a better life awaits us after death. Streets paved with gold and many mansions.

    Life with Christ is still pain and heartbreak but we are not alone. We have one with us who understands every type of suffering. Life is still difficult and confusing, but we are not alone. The changes may be small, but even small changes add up.

  24. ….thanks ProdigalSarah………..i think..?

  25. Michael, though I grew up in Portland, Oregon (with a short middle-life in San Anselmo, California when I was young), I married into a family that has deep roots in Irvine, Kentucky. My wife’s maternal grandparents have moved to Lexington along with several of their many children, but some of the rest of them are spread out across Kentucky and Tennessee. Grandpa died recently and was buried in Gumm cemetery, *outside* of Irvine (if your readers just knew Irvine at all, they’d understand the emphasis). He was a distinguished veteran, and the local chapter sent out a group of grizzled men in uniform to pay him a rightful tribute.

    Grandpa played guitar and sang on a local radio program. They’re all good strong Baptists, rooted in the church, warm, compassionate, and principled.

    Once in a while, we drive up into the hills around Irvine, or go for a long hike in the Red River Gorge. It’s impossible to do that drive without coming across some pretty extreme poverty. But it’s interesting, too, that the drive to the Oregon coast from Portland brings you past houses that are in the same kind of dilapidated shape, in the mountains that run down the coast, into the ocean on one side and the Willamette Valley on the other.

    For me, part of the joy of marrying into this family has been the incredible richness of culture that my children will inherit. It’s also one of the larger struggles. There are such gulfs of culture to cross. But I love them dearly and count myself lucky to have married into such a wonderful, lively, faithful people.

    I was just listening to a song today that I have loved for a long time that ends with the chorus, “all the roots grow deeper when it’s dry.” It’s so true, but it doesn’t give me much comfort. I’d rather that we were all living in the abundance of Eden.

    In any case, I know the beauty of that place, uniquely and from the outside looking in–but also uniquely, invited and welcomed into at least one family there. And I couldn’t agree more that the gift of that place–and places like it around the world–is the clear and abundant evidence of Jesus.

  26. ProdigalSarah, there were folks in the church’s past who thought to themselves, “that organ sure is loud, and we can’t even hear ourselves sing, really. I just can’t worship deeply without singing in unison, a cappella. But I guess when those kids grow up, they’ll probably have some kind of deep connection to their music of worship, like I do mine.”

    Which is not the same thing, by the way, as saying, “hey, those worship choruses have terrible theology, leave out scripture altogether, and are pretty much nothing but love songs to Jesus . . . which isn’t all bad, but sure isn’t the same as ‘A Mighty Fortress.'”

    However, in defense of modern worship (and I love the old hymns as much as the next person–enough so that even when I lead contemporary worship, we sing them), time will likely wean out the worst offenders. If we went back and listened to every hymn that was ever written and sung in church, there would have been plenty of bad ones. But the act of printing a hymnal–of deciding as a body of believers that THESE songs deserved the cost and trouble of consolidation, arrangement, printing, and distribution–by its very nature weeded out a lot of the bad stuff.

    There are plenty of modern choruses that are scripturally rich, musically interesting, and just plain-old GOOD. I’m a cusper; I grew up singing hymns in church, in four parts (Mom, soprano, Dad, alto, brother, tenor, me, bass), with my family. But I also sang choruses. So I love them both a great deal. I also love much older sacred music, though I’d be hard pressed to bring gregorian chant to my church.

    Michael, I realize I just hijacked this thread. Shouldn’t have done that, except that I can only feel so bad when I know that you’ll moderate this comment if you don’t want it here.

  27. Another great essay, I’m going to call it.

    iMonk, have you read any of Thomas L. Friedman’s books? I got “Longitudes and Attitudes” at a used book store, ’cause I like reading his NYT posts. It’s basically a compilation of his OP-ED/Essays, and could be a good way to organize your first book.

    This would be a great first chapter to build a book around. Lots of ideas branching off to your other posts.

  28. Eric Carter says

    I tried to come see the Appalachians, but as soon as I got there, I crashed my motorcycle on a curvy mountain road and broke my collarbone and cut my trip short. I don’t mind too much; it was a great trip while it lasted. They seemed like beautiful mountains, and the people there seemed fairly nice. Maybe I’ll see them again one day. 😉

  29. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    If faith is about faith in a life after death, there’s not much reason to change present circumstance. The message boils down to life stinks but have faith that a better life awaits after death.

    I have heard this so often from my rural Alabama relatives, this dull acceptance that life is pain and heartbreak and no matter what we do it will be pain and heartbreak. The only hope is a better life awaits us after death. Streets paved with gold and many mansions.
    — Prodigal Sarah

    A Christianized version of the Elysian Fields, where death is permanent and your physical life temporary, where the Kingdom of God is “Somewhere Up There” instead of here and now, where Heaven is all and the Cosmos nothing.

    Which starts a domino chain of Kismet-esque passivity and fatalism, why some of my college instructors called Christianity “the perfect slave religion” and the Wobblies sang with satirical nastiness
    “In the Sweet By and by,
    You’ll get Pie In the Sky When you die.”

  30. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    I tried to come see the Appalachians, but as soon as I got there, I crashed my motorcycle on a curvy mountain road…. I don’t mind too much; it was a great trip while it lasted. They seemed like beautiful mountains, and the people there seemed fairly nice. Maybe I’ll see them again one day. — Eric Carter

    Every year, I cross the Northern Appalachians between AnthroCon in Pittsburgh and visiting my East Coast buds in Gettysburg and Allentown. Every time, I’m struck by how different they are from the mountains I’m used to here in CA. Low continuous ridges completely covered in green forest, instead of rugged sawtooths covered in low scrub that’s only green during our rainy season (what you call “Winter”). It’s like visiting the Shire after living in Isengard.