Posts

Hills of Appalachia

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Janice Stamper

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s holler, not hollow
where I live
On the farm in the hills
Of the Appalachian mountains
The land is our soul
Not just our property
Settled generations ago
The spirits of my ancestors
Are all around me
As I work the soil
My hands cracked from toil
Just like theirs from hard days.
Living in poverty ain’t easy
It’s not because we don’t work
We work our hands
To the bone
Cutting wood for fires
Clearing land of thickets
Planting gardens
Hoeing, weeding
plowing, harvesting,
Storing, drying,
Freezing, canning
And food in the winter
is our pay.
It is our work.
It is our job.
Yet, others say
We are lazy, sorry
We could move
We could go
Where there are jobs
But to leave
Is more than just moving
It’s leaving our world
Our family, our culture
Our music, our faith
Our land, our heart.
It’s not like moving
From one place to another
It’s giving up everything
That one knows and loves
To move to strange ways
Strange lands, strange cultures.
Mysteries and wonders
of Appalachia
Cannot be known
By driving freeways
And reading about it
One must turn
Onto windy roads
Traveling deep
Up and down craggy hills
through lush forests
Sometimes
Five or six roads
Off the main road
To find the places
And see the people.
Sit on the porch
Eat at the table
Stay for a while
To listen to the
Stories as only
The teller can tell
With laughter
And tears
Fables filled
With wisdom
And truth.
One must look
Into the eyes
Of weary souls
To see hearts
Burdened by
Hard times
Hard work
Hard lives
Yet alive
With God’s grace
Love’s steadfastness
Spirit’s power
And faith
That endures
Hoping beyond hope
That others remember
And will not forget
The stories
The faith
The love
The lives
The beauty
The hopes
The dreams
Once they drive on
From the hills of Appalachia.


Janice Stamper is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She served in ministry in Alaska for thirty years then returned to KY in 2010 to care for her father, who recently died in March.

Holding Tight to the Rhythm of Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Elise Neal

It was a blessing to grow up as a native West Virginian with small town roots and a sense of community. In my hometown of Philippi I was baptized and confirmed and ordained — all in the Philippi Presbyterian Church. This church took its baptism vows seriously and helped to nurture my faith that has led me to be an ordained pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the past 9 years. But ministry looks a lot different now in West Virginia.

Photo from First Presbyterian Facebook page

Currently I serve as the pastor the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont, West Virginia. It too is a small town by today’s standards — but it’s much larger than Philippi where I grew up. In 2015 this congregation celebrated 200 years of ministry and in 2016 they celebrated 100 years in their current building, but these celebrations come with much sadness. As with many of our congregations, membership has shrunk, but in West Virginia the numbers are staggering. My current church was built 100 years ago, during the industrial age, and this congregation had more than 1200 members. There were three worship services and educational opportunities for everyone. Many of my members remember these glory days of times past, when the church was the center of both the community and of social life. They were children during this time and they long for those days to return. But the reality is that this will never be. As the need for coal decreased and the railroads moved west, so too did companies and industries. The jobs and people followed.

The current economic state in West Virginia has only continued to diminish as companies continue to leave the area — and nothing takes its place. So the congregation that was 1200 members is now 150. My home congregation, Philippi Presbyterian Church, has 12 members where there used to be more than 100. Those that stayed owned local businesses or worked as teachers, doctors, professors at local colleges, coal miners, and in local government. These people are the members of our churches. They grew up with the traditions of the church and hold tight to the rhythm of ministry that they remember from years past.

The challenge for these churches moving forward will be to embrace a new understanding of ministry in rural Appalachia. Will they be able to move towards new ministries the reach people in their local communities, communities that are vastly different today? Most of these churches won’t be able to make the shift and will not survive. It is a story that is far too common in West Virginia and it’s sad to say, the little church that I love, the little church that nurtured and raised me will likely be one of those that doesn’t make it.

But there is hope! With every death there is a new life that arises. There is always the opportunity to grow and nurture relationships in community around West Virginia. In the future it may mean that these groups form around music gatherings or at a little diner for a weekly meal. Regardless of where we meet, ministry will continue to take place as God strengthens our faith and relationships with others. The big question is — who will we invite to join us?


Elise Renee Neal is a native of Philippi, West Virginia, and has served the First Presbyterian Church in Fairmont for the past seven years. She recently accepted a new call to serve as the pastor of the Northminster Presbyterian Church in San Antonio Texas.

What is West Virginia for Me?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Anna Pinckney Straight

What is West Virginia (and Appalachia) for me?

It’s people. Amazing people.

Even though those people can be a bit stubborn. They’ve had to be stubborn, to survive. Like a flower blooming at the side of a rock when it’s not yet spring and it’s not supposed to be blooming.

People who know how to feed themselves and know how to feed their neighbors.

(If you don’t know about pepperoni rolls, you can read about them here.  And yes. I have opinions.  If I can’t get my mother-in-law’s, I want Tomaro’s. Stick. No cheese. No discussion.)

Beauty. God’s country.

It’s also a place defined as much by its shadows as by the places where the sun shines.

For so much has been taken from this place, to make other places and other people wealthy and comfortable.

Coal. Gas. Our children and youth who have to leave to find better education or good jobs. So much, still going away.

Am I going away or moving in

To this place where I’m still searching for the ways in which it is

Life and Ministry in Eastern Kentucky

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Janice Stamper

When coming to Morris Fork, Kentucky, a GPS will tell you to take turns that don’t exist through the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky through many windy roads traveling over many hills. I live on the family farm that was settled by my great-grandfather after he served in the Civil War. I returned to help my father after spending thirty years in ministry in Alaska.

I was raised on this farm deep in the hills about 100 miles from the closest city and 25 miles from the nearest town. We raised tobacco and my grandfather ran a small country general store.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

Each summer, work groups would come to the local Presbyterian church, which was a mission of the northern Presbyterian Church. I would be teased by group members for the way I talked, asked if I owned any shoes when I went barefoot, and asked if we had electricity. I didn’t realize until I was much older that they had assumed that stereotypes of Appalachian hillbillies were true. Despite all that, I wanted to travel beyond the hills to help others the way they had come to help our church.

When I sensed the call to ordained ministry, I went under care in Alaska because in 1986 my Kentucky church and presbytery would not accept me as a candidate. Regardless of what the denomination said, I was not welcomed. Following seminary, I received a call to Alaska and served several places there before returning to Kentucky in 2010 as a middle-aged woman.

The part-time ministry I have carved out since returning is providing pulpit supply to small churches without pastors and for pastors on vacation. There are still churches that won’t accept women pastors, while others have welcomed me with open arms because I was raised here and know the culture. Ministry here involves making time to learn about the culture, familial relations, and history of the area served. I see people from the outside make decisions without ever speaking directly to people. That only perpetuates the long-held belief that outsiders don’t care and think they know it all because they don’t listen.

The hardest part is watching Presbyterian churches disappear. My home church no longer exists. Some have left the denomination. The isolation is hard for ministers. One must be intentional about meeting colleagues and that can mean driving for several hours one way.

The richness I’ve received is learning long-time traditions from many folks. I’ve sat on porches and around tables talking about God. I’ve attended wakes and funerals. I’ve listened to church folks genuinely struggle with deep faith questions. I’ve worked the fields in the farm and shared our garden’s bounty with hungry folks. I’ve seen God in the eyes and hearts of strong mountain people.

All the books in the world cannot adequately describe the beauty and hardship of life in rural eastern Kentucky, nor can they tell the depth of love and pride of Appalachian people. Come visit me. I will be waiting for you.


Janice Stamper is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She served in ministry in Alaska for thirty years then returned to KY in 2010 to care for her father, who recently died in March.

Ties That Can’t Be Severed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Greg Bolt

“And thus it is with those nurtured in Appalachia — they leave, but they look back, remembering pleasant things. The land has claimed them, and its ties will not be severed.”

— Maurice Brooks from “The Appalachians”

I heard this quote as I sat in the WVU Coliseum in Morgantown, WV for my little sister’s graduation from West Virginia University. The same venue where, a few years earlier, I had attended my own graduation from graduate school. It spoke to me then; it speaks to me now. In that time, I had already moved away from West Virginia, moved back, and was in seminary where I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be coming back.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

It’s odd to me that Appalachia, and West Virginia specifically, has such a tug on my life. My parents moved there when I was in college, but when people ask me where I’m from I say — without hesitation — West Virginia. (I even sing the WVU fight song to my kids every night at bedtime.) I love that place so much that I get emotional just thinking about it. Part of that, I think, is the realization that I will most likely never live their again.

My wife and I are both teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church, we are both bi-vocational, we have two young kids, and it doesn’t feel like we can make a life in West Virginia. Nor would we seek a life somewhere else in Appalachia. Finding a church or churches that could support us and/or another job to support the work of the church seems too burdensome at this point. There are a lot of reasons that West Virginia doesn’t feel like a possibility (not the least of which is we don’t feel called there): economic, cultural, political, professional. I think any one of those reasons could be overcome but, when they are all working against you, it’s difficult. Sometimes the beautiful, close knit, tight hollows can feel like a warm hug welcoming you home to the place that you belong (to borrow a phrase from John Denver) but eventually they get to feel like a vise that constricts forward movement, that chokes off innovation, that stifles creativity.

The major problem with that is I know it isn’t true. Some of the most fantastic, innovative, creative people I know are from West Virginia. I also know a lot of people who have left for the same reasons. My family lives in West Virginia and has made a home there. I would love to live closer to my parents so that they could be in the same physical space as their grandkids more often. I’d love to walk through the woods at Bluestone Camp and Retreat, where my first professional ministry began. I’d love to call it my home again. Though that doesn’t seem likely now, I know that I have been claimed by the land and its people and those ties will never be broken.


Greg Bolt is the co-pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Red Wing in Red Wing, Minnesota. Greg is originally from the Southeast and attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, SC where he received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. Greg immediately enrolled in West Virginia University to study Athletic Coaching Education, where he received his Master of Science in Physical Education. After some trial and error, he entered seminary at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA where he met his wife Heidi and completed his Master of Divinity.

Ministry in Appalachia

by Anna Pinckney Straight

Let me say at the outset, I didn’t grow up here, in West Virginia or in Appalachia.

My birthplace is the deep south of Charleston, South Carolina. I understand that place (understanding being a very different thing than admiring or agreeing) and know it’s not the place that is “home” any longer. It is no longer of me, or I of it.

Anna Pinckney Crotts, Arthurdale, WV, 1997

For the second time in ministry, I’ve heard the call to serve a congregation in West Virgina. The first time it was an accident – I was called to a church that happened to be in West Virginia. I moved there single. Newly ordained. Ready to light the world on fire. This time, my husband and I prayed that West Virginia might reveal a church to which I would be called. We moved here by choice, with intention, and hope to stay a while.

Which means that, while I might not ever be considered “from here,” I want to understand this place’s ways. To know its history and people – the motivations and struggles that illustrate it.

But it isn’t easy learning a new language when you are in your forties. And the world isn’t the same place in 2018 that it was in 1997.

You might know something about West Virginia already, even if it’s just a general idea about the statistics.

U.S. median household income (2016): $59,039. West Virginia: $42,644

National poverty rate: 12.7%. West Virginia: 17.9%

The highest obesity rate in the nation at 37.7 %, and the highest approval ratings for President Trump.

If Jesus does have a preferential option for the poor, for the struggling, for the voiceless, then this is where Jesus must surely be. Right?

But… those aren’t the reasons I moved here. I moved here because it is a place with amazing people and unparalleled beauty.

The people here will share their precious morel mushrooms with you (even if they won’t tell you where they find them).

It’s a place where a busy commute means ten minutes to get across town but taking your daughter’s school friends home might take two hours or more.

It’s a place where even a small town of four thousand can have a Carnegie Hall and multiple music venues operating most nights of the week.

During the recent teacher’s strike, the community gathered food for children who might be hungry due to not having school-provided breakfast and lunch. But how could they find out about it? How could they get to it? You can go hours without cell phone coverage in some parts of the state, and even if parents know about the food, if they had the money to get there, they’d have the money to buy groceries. (For another perspective on this event, read Debra Dean Murphy in the Christian Century: “In West Virginia, the teachers’ strike made new space for Eucharistic living“).

To sum up, it’s complicated.

This month, we’ll be delving a little deeper into what ministry is like in this region of Appalachia (most of our writers are from West Virginia, but not all of them). What makes this a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry here?

I hope you’ll accept the invitation to take the journey with us.

In closing, here are some words written by author and professor Silas House for the soon-to-be-released documentary entitled “Hillbilly” —

Appalachia is a wound, and a joy, and a poem.
A knot of complication.
But you cannot know a place without loving it, hating it,
and feeling everything in between.
You cannot understand the complex people by only looking at the way
they have been portrayed on the television and movie screens.

One must go to the mountains to drive these winding roads
One must sit and jaw for a while with folks on their front porches
Must attend weddings and high school graduations.
One must study the history of the place and come to understand it
Must sit at a wake and look at the lines on the faces of the people
and the callouses on their hands and understand the
Gestational and generational complexities
Of poverty and pride and culture

Something inside you has to crack to let in the light so
your eyes and brains and heart can adjust properly.

[The text from the teaser for http://hillbillymovie.com/, written and read by Silas House, Executive Producer.]


Anna Pinckney Straight is the pastor of the Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, West Virginia. She moved to Lewisburg with her family in 2016 from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Her first call, back in the 1990s, was to the Community Presbyterian Church in Arthurdale, West Virginia.