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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.

Imperative Observations from a Native West Virginian

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 Bonnie Thurston

Yes, I am a product of the southern West Virginia coal fields. No, I am not barefooted. Yes, I can read. West Virginia public schools prepared me better for college than did my classmates’ elite, private schools. No, I didn’t attend a ranting, snake-handling church. I received robust religious education at a small, main-line church. Yes, after graduate school, I’ve chosen to live most of my adult life in West Virginia. No, I’m not ashamed of being Appalachian. (It rhymes with “catch.”) I am from a distinct culture, distinct as that of African Masai or Highland Scots. I cut breaks for people who aren’t blessed to be from West Virginia where coal is not only a job, but a culture. I don’t doubt climate change science, but I’m waiting for a pundit to “get it” about coal and culture.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

Having been asked, I offer five personal opinions on southern mountain cultural identity. First: mountain people don’t often venture opinions unless asked, but then respond with blunt honesty, often in colorful Anglo-Saxon. Consider yourself warned.

Two: Don’t come to “do good” to us. We’re not a “missionary project,” but fellow Christians. If you come, don’t make fun of how we talk or what we eat or wear.

Three: Don’t rush in with suggestions and projects. Wait. Watch. Listen. Partly for historical reasons we’re not “backward,” but reserved, sociologically “Appalachian isolates.” History’s taught us to be suspicious of incomers; many came to exploit us, our resources, and our land.

Four: Well-intentioned folks, like pastors and AmeriCorps VISTA volunteers, came, but few stayed. We watched their tail lights snake down our mountains, out our hollers. So we’re slow to trust. Outsiders have broken our hearts so often.

Five: most importantly, we are shaped by this landscape. Its rough grandeur made us self-sufficient and self-effacing. Going to the woods is going to church. We look at these undulating, old mountains, listen to water singing in rocky streams, and know creation is bigger and wiser than we are. Even the crustiest old mountaineer tears up about our land.

Get to know us. Listen to NPRs “Inside Appalachia.” Read what we write about ourselves — writers like Wiley Cash; Denise Giardina; Ron Rash; Cynthia Rylant; Lee Smith; West Virginia poet laureate Marc Harshman; Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom; Ron Rash’s Among the Believers; Homer Hickam’s memoir; the 1975 Roman Catholic Bishop’s pastoral letter “this land is home to me;” and The Telling Takes Us Home, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia’s 2015 “people’s pastoral.” This land is home to us. Pray, think kindly of us. Come here as to the home of hospitable, if peculiar, people.

Conveyors

I come home late by the back road
ruined and resurfaced by coal
which took the modest mountain homes
to install immense conveyors
to roll the stuff to the river
where barges carry it away.
The long belts slither through our hills,
their lights like malevolent pearls
strung to strangle friendly darkness.
Tonight the moon is nearly full,
draped mysteriously in mist,
eclipsed by the shining serpent.
Like Cleopatra’s little asp
they strike the breast of the mountains,
bring some relief and others death.

Quince

The new people have cut down
the old fashioned, messy quince,
its lumpy, misshapen fruit
squashy on the ground,
drawing bees that sweetened
long ago lives here, lives
now planted under old cedars
in the gone-wild cemetery.
Those folks aren’t from here,
don’t know bottled quince,
edible sunshine in long winters,
saved our kids from scurvy,
don’t know they’re kin to roses,
don’t know much and don’t ask.
They excavated the spring house,
but the spring now bubbles outside
its carefully fitted stone walls.
They can cut the trees down.
Other things don’t tame so easily.

Hope

It’s already mid April.
The first sign of spring,
pink tips on the Redbud
have just shown themselves.
It’s been a long winter:
snow, sub-zero temperatures,
flooding, and more snow,
more mines closed,
more farms destroyed,
more folks died from drugs,
more kids moved away
from home, kith, kin.
It’s like the future’s
up and died, except that
the Redbud’s blossomed,
sign that resurrection
comes to the mountains.

Country Roads Take Us Home

There is nothing much
hot or hurried about
our shaded lanes.
Ours is not a place
of super highways,
but twisted back roads,
lane and a half at best,
a place that teaches
the necessity of yielding,
the grace of giving way,
in part by narrowness,
in part by the obscurity
of noon green darkness
in forested valleys
and hair pin turns
hiding what comes next.
We cussed coal trucks,
but now there is
sad lonesomeness
in the winding emptiness,
the legacy of pot holes,
brokenness they left behind.
Still, travelling here
reveals the harsh beauty
of sparsely peopled places,
the proud integrity
of folks who stay on
knowing that somehow
origin is destination,
that the road makes us
what we become,
and, however circuitously,
will take us home.

“Conveyers” and “Country Roads” appear in Bonnie Thurston’s A Place to Pay Attention (Cinnamon Press, 2014) and are used with the kind permission of the editor. (www.cinnamonpress.com)


Formerly a university and seminary professor, Bonnie Thurston lives quietly near Wheeling, WV. Author or editor of 21 books on scripture and spirituality, she is a poet with six published collections, an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a Licensed Lay Preacher and Worship leader in the Episcopal Church U.S.A.