Returning From McDowell County,West Virginia
June 4, 2007
This was a remarkable trip. The drive there was about 400 miles – the first 350 miles took about 5 ½ hours; the last 50 took about 2 hours.
The purpose for making the journey was to meet with Pastor Sam Freeman and work out some arrangements for delivering materials on a regular basis. We met briefly and unloaded (in the rain) a refrigerator that I had taken with me. Sam had some time conflict and had limited time to spend with me that evening, but introduced me to Jack Fultz, the mission director of the School of Life Ministry in Gary, West Virginia. I ended up spending Friday, Saturday and Sunday with Jack and his wife Brenda.
When Jack and Brenda retired they became active in mission work in Appalachia. Two years ago they purchased the Gary High School building and property; the school had just been deactivated and is in good condition. They have converted classrooms into bedrooms with a minimum of three beds each – some of the rooms can house much larger teams. They have also converted one classroom for their own living quarters. Their dining room is located in the school hallway and consists of a table, chairs and a small hutch. They live modestly, although not many people can claim a 200 foot long dining room or one with hundreds of lockers.
Their purpose in acquiring the school is to provide housing to mission teams coming to work in the area. That work consists primarily of home repairs, evangelism and summer VBS for the children. In summer 2006 they were able to run VBS for the entire summer. Different teams hosted VBS for a week at a time, so there was a great variety of teaching and activities. Eighty five children up to the age of fifteen attended, were served well and loved it. Many seeds were planted and certainly some will bear fruit. As a result, there are children in Gary who now have extended families outside of the area. They exchange letters, email and the children receive birthday and Christmas presents. I met a thirteen year old girl who had just returned from a weekend visit to her extended family in North Carolina. She met them and was befriended by them during VBS.
Can you imagine the impact of YOUR ministry to these people if you could maintain contact with the children that you meet there?
I met a number of the impoverished people in the community. It was difficult to contain my tears when I saw their living conditions.
A woman, that I will call Joan, was one that we visited. Jack was taking me to a particularly depressed neighborhood. I don’t recall the name of the area, but Jack chose it because our time together was limited and the area was close by. We didn’t plan to visit anyone in particular, but we saw Joan walking home as we were driving along. We stopped to chat and told her that we would meet her at her home and that she could show us her leaking roof. Joan has a lot more problems that a leaking roof. Her home is in complete shambles-plaster ceilings falling down, bad plumbing leaks and electrical problems. Her house looks like it has never been cleaned and I don’t think that she even knows how. One of her sons has a serious heart problem and is wearing some sort of heart monitor; he has to return to a clinic for testing on the following Monday. Joan does not own a stove or refrigerator but must have one to be able to feed the children and store medication. She rents a stove and refrigerator from a rental company on a month to month basis. It cost her $298 a month. After that and her electric bill, she has about $150 dollars a month with which she buys potatoes, beans and onions. In poverty areas you will always find missionaries, but you also find predators that will cheat the poor or ignorant. Some how or another, I will get Jean a stove and refrigerator. If I can do something about her children sleeping on the floor, I will.
The previous evening, I met several families in another hollow. The lady’s husband is not allowed to live with her. Because he beats her, Social Services will stop her welfare if they don’t live apart. He lives in an abandoned trailer about 50 feet away. He was drunk when I met him and I concluded that the lady could have beaten him if she wanted to. We met two of their sons. One was living with friends “up the road”. He confided that he had moved out because his mom was doing drugs again. The other son was too embarrassed to shake my hand because he was too dirty. Jack suggested that he put on a clean shirt and he told us that this was his only shirt. Jack invited the family to come to the mission where they were given clothing. The lady did come with her husband but without the boys. The boys and her husband were very filthy when we met them. Personal hygiene did not seem to occur to them. Being in the company of someone who was clean was embarrassing to the boys but not to the dad – he was just as dirty(and drunk) when he came to the mission.
In the same hollow lives a young couple with a daughter. The daughter has a miniature horse. Jack is convinced that the horse lives in the cabin with them. Their cabin is a wreck.
We met a nice lady who lives in the same hollow. She is clearly Christian. Her house is small, comfortable, in good repair and cluttered but clean. She has a television and it appears that some of the kids in her hollow hang out there. (We met one. A nice boy of about 16-18) She seems to be a good influence on the kids. She is a grandmother. No kids at home.
I met an elderly lady who is raising her grand children because her daughter is a drug addict. She earns a small income by selling hotdogs outside a gas station near her house. Older neighborhood children watch her kids when she is out of the house. I met her about 8 am Saturday morning. She was cooking food for the day and chopping onions for the hotdogs. She was still cooking breakfast and invited us to return to eat and we would have if time permitted.
Jack is going to find an onion chopper for her. Even the smallest gifts can ease the difficulty of poverty.
I met a pleasant young man of fifteen. Jack has been paying him for light tasks around the mission. The lad looks like he could be a valedictorian. He is in the ninth grade but was expelled for selling drugs.
Jack Fultz, literally, greets everyone that he sees. Most of the folks that I met are friendly and courteous. Many are open to conversation and Jack will talk to them about their needs, both physical and spiritual. Saturday, I saw Jack witness to three different people and offer to baptize them.
I asked him about that practice. He told me that many of the locals were very ignorant and would have difficulty understanding the gospel message, but if you get them baptized in the river, you will get some of them into a church and hopefully get them saved.
As I traveled with Jack and talked with local people I met some very nice people like Miss Elizabeth. Miss Elizabeth is a committed Christian. She spoke of raising her daughter in a strict Christian home and influencing her grand daughter in the same way. She was very proud of her kids and the way they were turning out. Miss Smith owns a nice neat little house in Trestle Hollow among other homes that are dilapidated. She is an 80 year old African American widow with the most beautiful, intelligent eyes you could imagine and seems to be the picture of health.
I met a couple of folks that volunteer for the School of Life Mission. Also met a man that Jack has helped vocationally. The man used to be a truck driver but can no longer drive. Jack taught him to use and repair computers. There is a great abundance of used computers and Jack is helping him to develop a personal income.
The great amount of space available in the form of the high school, lends itself to different forms of vocational training. Teachers are needed.
The mission needs support in various ways.
1. Financial – monies are needed for utilities, rehab materials, teaching materials, transportation – a never ending list
2. Missionary volunteers – come down and adopt a home. There is a group coming from Washington state this summer to fix a home that a tree fell on – the lady still lives there and the tree is still laying on the house.
3. Volunteers to help run the mission – rehab planners and estimators, ministry planners, thinkers and doers for everything from housekeeping to fund raising. VBS teachers
Area poverty – Observations
In McDowell County, as in much of Appalachia, a large number of the poor are elderly.
Some of the elderly are doing pretty well. Living in these areas is cheap, many are living in the homes where they were born, like Miss Elizabeth. If Miss Elizabeth remains healthy, her primary expenses will be food, electric bill and real estate tax.
Health and educational issues are crucial problems. Many are illiterate. They cannot get credit under any circumstances. Many don’t know how to manage any aspect of their lives.
All of the children that I met on this trip were being raised by women alone; some by grandmothers or great-grandmothers
Spousal abuse is very common.
Alcohol and drug abuse is very common. This is probably born of desperation
Crime (other than drug dealing) is surprisingly low.
In-breeding and incest are not rare. It doesn’t produce the normal, healthy kind of people God intended. Many children and grandchildren of such unions are mentally retarded, and/or have significant health problems such as congenital heart disorders. In many cases, the effect reaches to “their children’s children.”
Due to ignorance and desperation, the impoverished are often the victims of cheats and scams.
Father figures are very often missing. Mothers are falling to drug abuse. If it were not for grandparents, many children would have no homes.
Children are growing up numb to their situations. Without intervention, they will repeat the only lifestyle they know. They are without hope, dreams or resources.
The U.S. government’s measure of poverty is flawed. National census is taken by mail, the impoverished do not respond to census, no one really knows how many there are. As incomplete as census figures are, they indicate at least several million Americans are living way below the poverty level in Appalachia. There are many more.
The Appalachian Regional Commission established by Pres. LBJ as part of the War on Poverty claims that the number of “distressed” counties (“distressed” is the ARC’s worst economic rating) has been reduced by 50% in the last 35 years. The problem is that salaries have increased over time to where these counties’ average income has exceeded the criteria for measuring poverty. Although some of those counties are no longer “distressed”, the same 30% of the people that didn’t have enough to eat in 1964 still don’t have enough to eat today. The rich got richer-the poor got poorer. April 24, 1964 Pres. LBJ was photoed visiting the Fletcher family in Martin County, Ky. This county is still on the distressed list.
The Appalachians are a forgotten people. Most Americans don’t know or care who they are.
As evidence I note our own website. This website has a high rating within the Google search engine. Many searches on the subject of Appalachian poverty will find us on the first page; sometimes in the top 3or 4 hits. Since we have only had 400 visitors in the last year, it is apparent that few people are searching the web for this kind of information. By comparison, sites like YouTube get millions of visitors a day.