News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Gospel light shines bright on my Old Eastern Kentucky Home

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) – Most people know by now that on July 27, 2022, historic levels of rain fell on southeastern Kentucky, taking the lives, homes and livelihoods of many.

As an Eastern Kentucky native, born and raised in Red Fox, my heart continues to ache with grief as I witness the magnitude of the loss and trauma and know that some of the hardest hit areas were in my native Knott County.

Firsthand witness

I recently traveled with Southern Baptist Theological Seminary colleague Justin Irving to Knott County and witnessed the devastation firsthand. We had the privilege of taking a financial gift from our church, Sojourn Midtown, as well as gift cards from many colleagues at Boyce College and Southern Seminary. We also took items to help meet material needs in the community.

We were able to partner with my home church, Hindman First Baptist Church (HFBC), to help restore the flood-damaged home of my mother in the faith, Ms. Ella Prater. During our short time there, we saw heartbreaking devastation but we also saw the amazing and faithful work HFBC is doing to meet both material and spiritual needs under the leadership of Senior Pastor Mike Caudill (affectionately known by his parishioners and the community as Brother Mike) and his wife Alice. I was a member of HFBC from 1996 to 2001.

Brother Mike, an M.Div. graduate of SBTS, has faithfully served HFBC for 34 years. During his ministry there, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has spread like wildfire throughout many parts of Knott County, across Eastern Kentucky and beyond as the church has produced many disciples of Jesus Christ – disciples who have, by God’s grace, reproduced themselves across the region and across the globe.

In the days immediately following the flood, HFBC – which averages around 150 to 200 in attendance each Sunday – served more than 9,000 meals to local residents. The Caudills have continued to serve alongside fellow members to deliver goods to residents who are unable to come to the church to receive them.

Preaching the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, applying the Gospel, obeying the Gospel and serving the community in practical ways in the name of Christ is nothing new for HFBC—as I have personally experienced.

Personal journey: Grace germinates among the weeds of tragedy

Since its inception, the church’s mission and witness have been fervent Gospel ministry. I experienced this ministry firsthand both before and after I became a Christian as a 17-year-old. Brother Mike, Mrs. Caudill, the Prater family and many of the saints at HFBC played a major role in saving my life.

As I was coming to the end of my senior year of high school in the spring of 1996, I had no direction, no purpose, no realistic goals. Worse, I didn’t know Jesus. Our community experienced a tragedy that changed the direction of my life forever and changed the lives of many young people and adults. A dear high school friend, Merri Kathryn Prater, a fellow senior and fellow athlete, was involved in a terrible car crash and suffered a severe brain injury. Merri Kathryn was a Christian, as were her mother Ella, my senior English teacher, and her father Willie (now with the Lord). The Praters were members at HFBC.

During her stay in the hospital at what was then known as the University of Kentucky Medical Center, several of her classmates and members from HFBC visited Merri Kathryn and sought to comfort and support the family. Brother Mike and numerous church members were a constant presence. They showed their faith by loving, comforting and weeping with the family. They also loved, comforted and wept with many of us young people, who ranged in age from early to late teens; we quite simply couldn’t understand or handle the trauma of seeing a classmate and dear friend whom we loved and a family whom we loved going through this pain and potential loss.

Even as a non-Christian, I was amazed by the consistency with which Brother Mike, his wife, and the saints at HFBC shared the love of Jesus with hundreds of young people. I was taken by the compassion and love they showed the Prater family and concerned friends. I was also filled with wonder by the deep faith they demonstrated as they encouraged us to place our faith in Christ and to pray fervently for Merri Kathryn. In the foyer of the UK Medical Center in 1996, I, still an unbeliever, gathered in circles of intense prayer for my friend, sang hymns, and heard for the first time the words to “Amazing Grace” as members of HFBC led in worship there in the foyer.

Those moments shook me to my core and changed me forever.

To my dismay, Merri Kathryn never regained consciousness, and she never left the hospital. On April 3, 1996, she went to be with Jesus. The funeral was held at HFBC. I was a pallbearer. Brother Mike preached a sermon called “Three Cheers and a Savior” – Merri Kathryn was both a Christian and a cheerleader.

That sermon and the entire service changed my life direction in every possible way.

Brother Mike preached the Gospel clearly and beautifully celebrated Merri Kathryn’s life. Many friends, family members, and teammates spoke of Merri Kathryn with beauty and grace. Mrs. Prater eulogized her daughter with profound eloquence, supernatural strength, deep faith and the joy of the Lord.

Merri Kathryn’s funeral was filled with sorrowful joy and with lament, but not with despair. The Prater family and HFBC’s saints grieved with Gospel hope. I encountered the greatness of God for the first time at that funeral, as I heard Brother Mike preach the Gospel with stunning clarity, and as I heard for the first time those words of the famous Rich Mullins song, now forever engraved on my soul as the choir and congregation sang, “Our God is an awesome God, who reigns in heaven above, with wisdom, power, and love, our God is an awesome God.” Merri Kathryn’s life – one so well lived in her friendships, her church (which eventually became my church) and her family (which eventually became my adopted spiritual family) – truly saved my life.

The night Merri Kathryn died, I received the news along with my baseball teammates after a game. My teammates and I, many of whom were not Christians, erupted with loud cries of shock, devastation and anger – at God. A teacher at my high school, also a member of HFBC, had attended the game. She came onto the field, placed her hand on my shoulder as I groveled in the dirt near first base and exhorted me: “Jarvis, you must put your hope and your faith in God.” Several of us heard that HFBC was open. Someone told us Brother Mike and other church members were willing to talk to us.

I joined a few teammates and some parents for the short drive from the baseball field to the church. There, one of my teammates, an underclassman and HFBC member, sat down beside me in a church pew, opened John 3:16 and read it aloud; he explained, “Jarvis, this is what life is all about.” Brother Mike likewise explained the Gospel with great clarity to the young people and parents who had gathered there.

That night, one of my teammates, Mark Combs, gave his life to Jesus. He and I were good friends in high school, eventually became college roommates, and we attended Southern Seminary together. Pastor Mark is a two-time Southern Seminary graduate, and he currently serves as pastor of Summit Church in Hazard, Ky., a congregation he and his wife planted. Pastor Mark and Summit Church are likewise doing great work to help flood survivors in the region.

Grace breaks through

I didn’t give my life to Christ on the night Merri Kathryn died. But on April 22, 1996, during a baseball game, I asked Brother Mike’s son, Casey, a teammate, if he would ask his father to give me a call because I wanted to talk to him about becoming a Christian. After our game that night, Brother Mike called, explained the Gospel with great power, and led me to personal faith in Jesus Christ. Approximately two years later, Casey himself would die an untimely death.

Shortly after my conversion, Brother Mike baptized me, and I became a member of HFBC. In the ensuing years, the body of HFBC walked with me through Christian discipleship and helped me discern a call to ministry. That body licensed me into the ministry, ordained me into the ministry, supported me financially so that I would be able to attend college and seminary, supported me spiritually and walked with me through numerous joys and trials.

I say it again: That body truly played a major role in saving my life!

The light still burns bright in Eastern Kentucky

So, as I have heard, read in the news and seen firsthand how Brother Mike, Mrs. Caudill and the saints at HFBC are responding with the hope of the Gospel during this time of crisis in the region, I’m reminded that the Gospel’s light continues to shine bright on my old Eastern Kentucky home through the ministry of HFBC and through the kindness and generosity of so many residents there.

    About the Author

  • Jarvis Williams