by Zach Bay, pastor, First Baptist Church of Middlesboro
A stereotype is a powerful thing. A stereotype does more than describe a reality; it prescribes one. It comes prepackaged with assumptions about power, worth, intelligence—even dignity—and because there is a lining of truth to just about every stereotype, it’s easy to embrace the assumptions along with the truth and move on. In fact, we human beings seem to learn to do so almost effortlessly.
I do ministry alongside a great group of people in the heart of one of the most stereotyped regions in the country. Best I can tell, the stereotyping of Appalachia began slightly before and around the so-called War on Poverty initiative signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Appalachia had always been a rural, low-income, familial society. In the ensuing years, it also became known outside and in as uneducated, socially-backward, and poor.
In response to the power of this pervasive and debilitating stereotype, First Baptist Church of Middlesboro has dreamed of an Appalachian Immersion Experience. We’re still hammering out all the details for next summer, but the idea is to offer a one-part service, one-part learning “mission trip” opportunity in eastern Kentucky for youth and adults. We’ve repurposed the second floor of our education building into a mission wing to house groups and group leaders. We’ve partnered with the Appalachian Ministries Education Resource Center in Berea, KY to ensure the integrity of the learning experiences. And we’ve reached out to our community here in Middlesboro in search of service projects that will help our neighbors. This summer, we’ve hosted two groups: one from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA and the other from First Baptist Church of Richlands, NC. During their time here, they served in a food pantry, worked in a clothing closet, worked on a mountain farm, toured a coal mine, and learned about ecology and art at a settlement school.
Perhaps most importantly, while doing all of that and more, they worked on growing themselves and their perspectives beyond of the stereotypes of Appalachia they brought with them. They learned to see a place in the world in all of its richness—challenges and blessings. Whatever else that might look like, to me, it looks like redemption. To me, it looks like learning to love the world that God so loves.