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Baptists’ Appalachian ministry likely to help break stereotypes

TEAYS VALLEY, W.Va. (BP)–Not far from the headquarters of the Appalachian Mountain Ministry (AMM) lie booming housing areas midway between Charleston and Huntington, W.Va. Natives call it the state’s “yuppie” area, since the houses commonly cost $150,000 or more.
That is just one example of a changing Appalachia that no longer fits the stereotypical image of hillbillies living in tarpaper shacks, said AMM director Tommy Goode. The diverse nature of the region will be one of the topics discussed at the nine-state Baptist ministry’s kickoff at North Roanoke (Va.) Baptist Church Aug. 20-21.
Carl Boyd, director of missions for the Pike Baptist Association in eastern Kentucky, said he hopes more accurate pictures of the region emerge as mission projects unfold under AMM’s direction.
In the past Boyd has fielded calls from people concerned about starving children because of news reports aired about poverty-stricken areas of Appalachia.
“I’ve never run across a starving child,” he said. “Some have improper diets, yes, but nobody’s starving. I’ve seen TV reporters pick out something and make it like everyone’s that way. But you can find a $300,000 brick house around the curve from a shack.”
This is why many inside the region see the Appalachian Mountain Ministry as something new and different than various government projects that seemed to perpetuate negative stereotypes.
“I don’t see this as welfare,” said Leon White, state missions director for the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists. “I see this as partnership. I believe it’s going to focus a national spotlight on Appalachia and create an awareness of Baptists. This is America’s heritage — the foothills of America’s dream.
“My dream is to see more people come and invest more of their time and lives here, not just one or two weeks.”
While there still are pockets of rural residents who tend to remain in the same area forever, North Carolina’s Gaylon Moss said Appalachia includes industries and rapidly growing cities.
“It’s not ‘hicksville,'” said Moss, director of volunteerism for that state’s Baptist convention. “People may have a different mind-set, but it’s just different, not wrong. I think [the ministry] will provide people with a new vision.”
Still, there are some who have misgivings about the publicity that could result from AMM-led missions projects. June Rice, missions development chairman for the Enterprise Baptist Association in eastern Kentucky, said people in her area have been burned in the past.
One report that has left lingering resentment is a “60 Minutes” program aired several years ago. The report on an area known as Muddy Gut Hollow made residents look ignorant, she said.
That particularly upsets the retired high school librarian, whose former students include a three-star general, the dean of Yale’s law school and college professors.
“I’m sure the people who come will find them warm and hospitable,” Rice said. “But they’ve been warm and hospitable before to people who have written mean and nasty things about them, to the point they’re a little gun-shy.”
The public should be aware that Appalachia is changing, Rice noted. Children in the region are raised on television, and many past cultural influences have faded. “People don’t sit around and strum mountain music more than anywhere else,” she said.
Reflecting the newly prosperous development that surrounds AMM’s offices, Appalachia offers many modern challenges, Goode said.
“What we did in the past isn’t relevant to the new affluent — the people coming in or Generation X,” said Goode, who recently attended a rock concert to better understand his children’s musical tastes. “A lot of people aren’t being reached because they’re different from church culture.”
The statistics for the region are of particular concern. While it may wear a Bible-Belt reputation, the percentage of unchurched people ranges from 50 percent to as high as 80 percent in some areas, Goode said.
This brings with it spiritual warfare every bit as challenging as any major metropolitan area, he said.
“Every little town in West Virginia has its showgirl bar and X-rated bookstore,” he commented, adding that teen pregnancy, cult activity and drug and alcohol abuse also are problems.
Nor can the poverty that still exists in some areas be overlooked, he said, citing such social ills as illiteracy, chronic unemployment, inadequate housing and poor access to health care.
Despite these problems, Goode said, an effort to spread the gospel and help others in the name of Christ will help bring a new day to the region.
“Some folks at an [organizational] meeting last March said this is the first time anything from the grassroots level has been developed,” Goode said. “This is driven by the local church. We won’t bring outsiders in where insiders aren’t requesting them.”

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  • Ken Walker