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Hope Force Appalachia Reservist Week

By Brian Wagner, HFI Appalachia Director

There’s something special about the hollows that carve the mountains in McDowell County, West Virginia.  There’s a draw, a sort of wooing that comes from deep within the hills, beckoning you for adventure.  What you will find here are some of the most beautiful landscapes our country has to offer.  You will also find nestled in this beautiful backdrop of the Appalachian mountains are small communities struggling for survival.  Rural poverty is something that plagues much of our country, but nothing like the extent found here in southern West Virginia.  Once one of the richest places in the country because of coal, it is now amongst the poorest.  The poverty is so extensive, systemic, and generational that numerous documentaries and news reports have highlighted McDowell.  Even with all that attention, the struggle remains.

Hope Force Appalachia finds its rational rooted in the scriptures where Jesus instructs us to love our neighbors.  Though the definition of neighbor is much greater in context, our presence in the community here affords us to love our literal neighbors.  It’s why we tell all those that come to visit that it is first and foremost a time to meet new friends.  I always state, “My hope is that I can create a pathway for people to fall in love with the area and more importantly the people here.  When they become your friend and neighbor, then your serving them comes from the proper heart posture.”

This past week, thirteen Hope Force Reservists gathered in Hollow #5 to carry out that mission here.  So what happens when you unleash 13 Hope Force Reservists into a community to share the love of Christ?  Well, the same thing that happens when any team or individual comes here to McDowell...God invites them to join in the work He is already doing, and boy does He show off!  Here’s a taste of a typical week here in Holler #5 through the eyes of Reservists who just spent time here.

About 6 pm, everyone had arrived and were finding their rooms in the large team house that Hope Force owns.  With the ability to house 18 people comfortably, a large kitchen to cook for that many, and plenty of space inside and out to relax, it almost seems like a retreat center.  Gathered around a meal and then a fire, we discussed the very real struggle that exists within this community. Our intention is never to emphasize the bad for its own sake; only to highlight it in expectation to see God’s redemptive work within it.

Next morning…we went to work!

Four doors down from the team house lives a couple in their early 90’s.  After a very bad accident a couple years ago, the two have struggled with pain and mobility.  I have known this couple, Emmit and Elcy, for many years now and recently became aware of their porch being in disrepair and their front steps unsafe.  Both had recently fallen down those steps and Elcy shared with me that she didn’t feel safe sitting on her porch because it felt unsafe to her.  She also shared that back in the day her porch was the best porch in the town of Caretta -- filled with plants, hummingbirds and neighbors.

Our Reservists removed all the rotting deck boards, leveled the joists, and put down pressure treated 2x6 planks that should withstand as many plants and neighbors who wish to enjoy this couple’s porch.  The greatest part of this engagement was the trust this couple developed in those who were providing emotional and spiritual care.  Partnering with the couple’s daughter, several Reservists were able to lovingly and respectfully help them clean up 40 plus years of overflowing belongings within a part of their home.  I vividly remember how one Reservist sat next to Elcy who was obviously distressed from the cleaning out process.  As the Reservist sat, she simply listened to Elcy’s struggle, understanding that these “things” represented special, past memories.  With no hurry in mind, Elcy was eventually able to grieve and process well, continuing on to tackle the task that would make their house safer.  You’ll see in one of the pictures that Elcy’s new favorite place to sit is on her new steps.

Another friend made this week was a younger woman who had been living with her father up on the next road.  Her father passed away about a month ago, and the pain she felt, along with a sense of loneliness was becoming too much for her to handle.  Not only that, but her home needed much attention due to leaking pipes, and overgrown brush.  From a practical standpoint, the pipes are fixed, the brush cleared out, but the greatest impact was in the relationship formed between her and one Reservist in particular.  This Reservist quickly became her friend and her cheerleader.  As the week went on, with the intentionality to simply love her neighbor, this Reservist found herself helping this young woman move through her grief, and begin to make steps to living alone and providing for her needs.  It will be a long road ahead, but as her neighbor up the road said, “This is the first time in a long time that I have seen her smile.”  A glimpse of the goodness of God.  In fact, a couple days after the team left, she brought down a cake and card simply to say thank you.

The list could go on and on.  Sagging floors repaired in a few homes.  A neighbor’s ATV, representing their only transportation, repaired and running again.  Widows and widowers visited and invited to join us for dinner.  Roofs repaired and replaced.  This team, along with all the other ones this summer, have consisted of teenagers, older folks, skilled people in the trades, and those who have no desire to pick up a hammer.  It is not a “work” trip.  It is about the "ministry of presence."  Whether one nails shingles or brews a cup of coffee, hangs drywall or just hangs out, all are welcome and used by God to love the people who call McDowell County home; those who quickly become neighbor and friend.

Now, it wouldn’t be the proper experience here in McDowell if we didn’t enjoy the great outdoors as well.  Nestled in these mountains are 800 miles of 4-wheeling trails.  Our teams take an evening to drive an hour through the woods to have a bbq on the top of Miracle Mountain, a wilderness park with a view like no other.  The only way to take in the beauty of this area is to get to the most remote areas of it, and in order to do that, you need 4wd.  Don’t worry.  We have a few of them.

So may you take this communication as an invite for you to join us here in McDowell County.  It’s a place like no other.  As I said, there is something unique to these hollows.  Whether you want to reroof a home or enjoy the neighborhood cookout, this place is for you.  God is already at work.  He simply asks us to get as close to him as possible and join him in that.  You just might find that you fall in love with this place.  You just might find a new neighbor to help, or one who will help you.

If you are interested in bringing a team this fall or in the summer of 2022, please email our Hope Force Appalachia Director: brian.wagner@hopeforce.org.