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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.

Waiting with the Widow

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: McKenna is co-leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “Beyond the Mission Committee: Re-thinking How Your Church Engages in Local Mission.” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by McKenna Lewellen

In Mark 13, Jesus bellows, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

It is trembling, quaking writing. It is a message of hope – but our ability to hear it that way depends largely on a character who lives at the edge of this Advent lection, one chapter before.

Jesus shouts his apocalyptic declaration from the top of the Mount of Olives, just across from the Temple, but earlier that day, he had been inside its walls, sitting across from the treasury.

Photo from The Center’s Facebook page

In walked a poor widow. Remember her? She enters the treasury alone and drops her last two coins inside the collection box. It’s an ordinary act – one that had, no doubt, happened before and gone unnoticed. Her coins fall in alongside gifts that dwarf hers. She gives to sustain an institution, though it’s unlikely her pennies would cover the cost of counting the gift itself. Why does she do it? Who knows. Jesus doesn’t ask. He just points to her as it happens, tells the disciples what he sees unfolding, and storms out. As they reach the outer wall, the disciples have all but forgotten her and are marveling at the size of the stones.

So often we think about this woman as the poster child for sacrificial giving. A more honest appraisal might speak of her as the last straw, the one who pushes Jesus to speak with a new kind of force about his vision of a new order. Watching her lose all she has, he knows with deepened anger that the world as it is doesn’t work for the poorest among us. The thought of her haunts him the whole climb up to the top of the Mount of Olives, and he proclaims the sky will fall to the ground and the ground will shake, and it will become unrecognizable. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

Without the poor widow, we risk hearing Jesus’ declaration in Mark 13 as just another threat barked out by an angry man. With her, the apocalypse carries hope for life beyond the way it’s always been.

Advent invites us to find hope in apocalypse that makes room for the widow to live.

For too long, mission in many of our churches has tried to momentarily save the poor widow. We have fed her more meals, collected more unwrapped Christmas presents, and tucked more sheets into shelter cots than we can count. But few know her, remember her name, or question why, after decades of these projects, we still live in a world that needs to make her a bed, feed her a meal, and send her away with a shopping bag.

Mission committees have tried to save her from a distance, but she is our best partner and leader as we try to find God at work in the world. She is more likely to be a number in our outreach budget than a member of our community. But she is the one who will see the world turn upside-down and wait breathlessly in hope for a different way to emerge – one where she can live without fear of violence, breathe clean air, access enough healthy food, and rest in safety. She is the one who can show us Advent hope.

On street corners, in church basements, and in neighborhood gardens in Baltimore, I am waiting with the widow, and hearing her cry out. She is telling us what the world can be, shouting her vision, painting it on the side of houses, pointing out promise in empty lots.

And as I stand here, I wonder, do we know the widows among us well enough for apocalypse to sound like hope? Or will we miss it?


McKenna Lewellen is the Program Coordinator at The Center, a mission initiative of the Presbytery of Baltimore.

Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.