Appalachia Reflections in Preparation: The Shepherd of These Hills

Appalachia Reflections in Preparation: The Shepherd of These Hills

I just stumbled on this blog post in my reading today. It’s incredibly timely for us as a ministry as we prepare to go here:

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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.

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