Church: Moving Mountains in Appalachia

Pikeville, Kentucky, had a problem. Flat land is scarce in the Appalachians, and this horseshoe-shaped city had to share its narrow valley with the Big Sandy River, three major roads and a railroad. Hemmed in by the mountains, Pikeville was dusty, congested, and susceptible to flooding. With nowhere to go, it was also held back in economic development.

In 1960, a far-sighted local politician, William C. Hambley, decided to do something about it. He reasoned that if the river, the roads and the railroad could be rerouted, Pikeville would have room to breathe. The problem was that Peach Orchard Mountain was in the way. So, through many years of perseverance and influence, Hambley brought more than 20 federal, state and local agencies together in what is one of North America’s most spectacular engineering feats—the Pikeville Cut-Through.

The New York Times has called it the eighth wonder of the world. It is more than 1,300 feet wide, 3700 feet long and 573 feet deep. A total of 12 million cubic yards of earth were removed and used as landfill, creating 400 acres of usable land for the city’s expansion.

The dust, congestion and flooding are now in the past, and Pikeville was recently listed as one of the 100 Best Small Towns in America.

Moving church mountains

It still has problems, though. This part of Appalachia is plagued by poverty, and many of its people suffer with serious physical and spiritual needs. There are many agencies and churches, but the need is for them to work together to tackle the problems, something government agencies and churches aren’t very good at. Pikeville’s Grace Fellowship Church is working hard to change that.

Grace Fellowship’s pastoral team, Debby Bailey and Mike and Estil Stewart (right), are dedicated to bringing the city’s churches together to serve the community. “Churches must be involved in the community,” says Debby. “God wants us to be a church that cares for the community, not just for ourselves.

“In the past we were very legalistic and exclusivist,” explains Debby. “We kept to ourselves—and slowly we were dying. Then, along with our entire denomination, our eyes were opened so that we could see God’s grace. God transformed us from legalism to a congregation founded on his grace and his love. We are a church that has been shown God’s grace and we are a church that shows God’s grace.” We began to look outward—to how we could share that grace and love with the community.

However, the previous reputation was a barrier that kept many people from believing the church had changed. So they decided to shed the last vestiges of the past and change the name to Grace Fellowship. Prior to that time they had the opportunity to move to the old Weddington Theater in the downtown area. Since the move, the once dwindling congregation has more than doubled in size. “We are the same people we always were,” says Estil Stewart. “We just have a new name, a new meeting place and new mission.”

Reaching out to youth

One of Grace Fellowship’s major accomplishments has been the annual July Jam. In an early attempt at community outreach, Mike and Debby organized a retreat at Pikeville College. Debby remembers that it was successful, but not particularly well-attended. Her husband, Eddie, suggested that perhaps they were aiming at the wrong age group. Pikeville’s younger generation needed help.

“I knew at once that he was right,” says Debby. She knew some of the local youth pastors. They wanted something for Pikeville’s young people, more and more of whom were becoming spiritually lost. So they began to plan a series of free public concerts with a Christian theme, to be held in a local park.

“We knew we could not do this by ourselves. We needed to partner with other local churches,” Mike Stewart explained. Grace Fellowship realized they had to tear down the walls that they and other churches had built over the years and begin to work and pray together. That was easier said than done. Getting the various groups to work together was a barrier that was in some ways even more formidable than Peach Orchard Mountain. Churches talk about unity, but they guard their “turf” very carefully. In this part of the world, partisan feelings have especially deep roots, and the divisions often go back a long way. (This is the region of the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud.)

“For a couple of years we felt we were wasting time,” Mike remembers. “But we began working with Pikeville United Methodist church to organize the Christian Rock concerts, to be known as July Jam (Jesus Unconditionally Loves You. Just Ask Me!).

“For the first couple of years it was just two churches—the Methodist church and ours. We worked hard together. We did not get a whole lot of participation from other groups. But it has grown. Our intention was to reach out to the youth, but what surprised us was the number of families who came.”

Today at least nine local churches are working together to make July Jam a success. In 2006, the concert moved to the prestigious 7000+ seat Expo Center and was officially recognized as being the Innovative Project of the Year. Some of the concerts are held in the Expo Center. But some will be local Christian Rock outside, in the park.

Pikeville’s Grace Fellowship Church shows what can happen when a congregation decides to look at possibilities instead of problems. “I love coming here,” one visitor said. “These people are real. There is nothing fake about them.”

Members are quick to point out that one of the reasons for their success is the work of the strongly unified ministerial team. Estil and Mike Stewart and Debby Bailey all have a different approach, while working together in cooperation and mutual respect.

At a time when many small congregations are considering closing their doors, Mike, Estil and Debby have some advice: Don’t be sure God’s answer is to close the doors. He may want you to stick together as a group. God has placed you in the community for a reason. There is a niche. Don’t tell God what it is; ask God to show you what it is. Then get out of the way and see what he brings you.

Author: John Halford

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