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Unemployment, poverty gripped their hearts for Appalachia

ALPHARETTA, GA, (BP)–When Lonnie and Belinda Riley returned to Lynch, Ky., in 1998 to sell a family estate, the visit was less than nostalgic.

The area, located in central Appalachia, was the most economically depressed region in Kentucky. The coal mining industry went bust about 30 years earlier, and unemployment and poverty rates soared well beyond national averages. The high school dropout rate approached 50 percent.

The Rileys, meanwhile, were enjoying their “dream home” in Southaven, Miss., where Lonnie, a former engineer, was senior pastor of a thriving Southern Baptist church.

“They bought us Cadillacs and cell phones; whatever we needed, the church provided,” Riley said. “Our income was approaching a six-digit income, and so the Lord was blessing us real well. We just thought we would retire there and that would be it.”

But God had other plans.

Burdened by the hopelessness and despair reflected in the faces of their hometown residents, the Rileys decided to move back into the family home in Lynch a year later to serve fulltime as Mission Service Corps missionaries with the North American Mission Board and the Kentucky Baptist Convention.

“We moved back without any promise of an income,” Riley said. “God has taken care of us even until this day, and we still live on faith, and that’s the greatest way to live.”

In recognition of their “commitment to and effectiveness in evangelism, church planting and local ministry,” the Rileys have been named “2004 Mission Service Corps Missionaries of the Year.”

MSC missionaries are self-funded volunteers who serve a minimum of 20 hours per week for four months or longer in ministries that support NAMB’s church planting and evangelism efforts throughout North America.

Nearly 2,000 MSC missionaries, with two or more years of experience, are currently serving through NAMB and their state Baptist convention or with the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists.

Since returning to Lynch five years ago, the Rileys have led a renovation project involving the town’s former hospital, converting it into a Christian retreat center called Solomon’s Porch. The center also houses volunteer mission teams.

The Rileys have helped coordinate mission efforts by thousands of visiting Southern Baptist volunteers from across the country. As a result, more than 2,000 people in the area have made professions of faith in Christ.

Last year alone, 3,000 volunteers from 30 states participated in ministry projects coordinated by the Rileys across Harlan County in southeast Kentucky.

The couple’s nonprofit ministry provides employment opportunities for seven paid staff members who work with nearly a dozen other volunteer staff members in providing food, clothes, financial assistance, home repairs and Christian counseling.

Riley attributes the ministry’s success in large part to a 1999 area-wide prayer meeting in the city park which attracted about 250 people.

“We held hands around the park and cried out for God to return to us and forgive us for trusting in everything but Him,” Riley recounted. “God just really heard the cry of His people. I’ve never heard such crying out to God publicly in a prayer meeting. It was heart-wrenching to know that people really desired to see God move in their life and it’s been happening now over the past several years.”

Since that prayer meeting, Riley said, five coal mines have reopened, bringing more than 400 jobs to the area, and a new textile factory has added nearly 300 jobs.

And the economic revival, Riley said, is second only to what God is doing spiritually in the area.

Most recently, the Rileys partnered with a local Christian businessman who renovated the town’s vacant theater, built in the 1930s, to host Christian concerts, community revivals and Bible seminars.

Through an unsolicited e-mail from a friend in Illinois, Riley said, he learned about a college that had mistakenly ordered the wrong model of theater-style seats and wanted to donate the shipment to a charity. As it turns out, the theater-style seats, valued at $70,000, were color-coordinated and custom-fit for installation on the newly renovated building’s inclined floor.

“We opened with a concert and saw eight people saved,” Riley said. “We had a youth rally not long ago and saw 21 teenagers saved in that building. God is doing incredible things, and He’s doing them in incredible ways.”

After 35 years of marriage, including pastorates of affluent churches and ministry positions on the state convention level, the Rileys said they have never been more fulfilled than in their current ministry.

“Sometimes when you’re in a structured setting or a traditional setting, you’re expected to perform. But when you’re in a setting where there is nothing, there isn’t any hope, there aren’t any resources, then God is expected to do it,” Riley said. “So we just rely on God instead of our own ingenuity.”

The Rileys said that while it’s humbling to receive special recognition for their MSC service, they still feel undeserving. “The folks who deserve it are the 3,000 volunteers who come here to serve,” Riley said. “We simply coordinate that.

“We did not have a preconceived strategy on how to win the people of eastern Kentucky, but God did,” he continued. “We don’t have anything to boast about, but God does, and we’re confident in Him more than we’ve ever been in our life that He’s able.”
To learn more about mission opportunities through Mission Service Corps, visit www.answerthecall.net; call 1-800-462-8657; or contact your state Baptist convention. For more information about mission project needs and opportunities in eastern Kentucky, contact the Rileys at (606) 848-2766 or by email at [email protected].

    About the Author

  • Lee Weeks