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Serving the poor in Appalachian hills

Serving the poor in Appalachian hills

Missions and Outreach

There are pockets of poverty in the United States so far beyond what most folks typically see, but they exist. Appalachia is arguably the most well-known of these pockets.

The people who populate these areas, where indoor plumbing is scarce and electricity is a true luxury, are heavily dependent on missionaries willing to come to them and care for their needs.

Red Bird Mission volunteers Mike McGrath and Doug Covert find the right fit in what will eventually become a much needed wheelchair ramp for one of the residents of Beverly, Kentucky.

Pastor Kris Schonewolf, with Belleview United Methodist Church near The Villages, will take a group of missionaries from her church and others on their second visit to Beverly, Kentucky, next month to patch rooftops, repair flooring, add steps and paint. It will be her seventh mission trip to Appalachia.

“Poor people in Florida have running water and electricity and cell phones,” Schonewolf said. “In Appalachia, a poor person has none of that. There are no jobs, so they can’t go out and work. People are so isolated because they are in this mountainous area where there used to be coal mines. Now, there is nothing.”

They don’t seek government assistance, she said, because the government frowns on people living with their children in shacks. “The government would take the children. Nobody wants their children taken away, not even poor people.”

The work camp these 15 missionaries will visit is run by Red Bird Mission, the oldest continuous UMC mission operating in the United States. Red Bird is the backbone of the Beverly community, operating a Christian church, a senior center and the work camp.

Belleview UMC holds fundraisers to gather $600 for each missionary to make the trip. That includes the gas to get there and room and board at Red Bird, as well as all the supplies necessary to complete the week’s task.

Those going range in age from 21 to 68. Some have skills, like plumbing and electrical, while others will lend their talents as helpers.

In addition to doing the actual work, missionaries interact with the families they are helping.

“It’s ridiculous, the conditions there,” Schonewolf said. “There was one job we got sent to, a singlewide trailer by a creek. They had raw sewage running into the creek, no sanitation. Often there is no trash pickup so they burn their garbage.

“This family in one trailer wanted us to put skirting around it because animals had gotten under there and eaten out the kitchen floor. One team did the floor and we put skirting to keep animals out.”

One year, Schonewolf’s group found a young couple and their baby living in a utility shed with no running water. “Their outhouse was a hole in the ground, and they had one light bulb running from an extension cord to her mother’s trailer.“

“They really do show appreciation. They usually cry. One lady, we did her windows and doors and small set of steps. She just looked at this little set of steps and a little tiny space for a chair, and she just cried because she was so happy.

“I have seen so many people be transformed by mission trips,” Schonewolf said. “The Holy Spirit gets hold of them in a certain way. You get them away, and the spirit will interact with them. I’ve seen people transform before my very eyes.”

And when they return to their home church, she said, it is with a renewed spirit to help the community as Jesus directed.

“When you think about what Jesus said, to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Judea would be like Red Bird because it’s not too far away. Samaria is all the places you don’t want to go, which is international trips. We think of Red Bird as part of fulfilling our commission that Jesus gave us to do,” Schonewolf said.

“Yes, we help Jerusalem, but we always go out.”

--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.