WHEELING, West. Va. -- United Methodists representing Appalachian ministries from New York to Mississippi met Oct. 5-7 to celebrate a half century of mission and to center on “building a beloved community” amid conflict and hardship.
Members of the United Methodist Appalachian Ministry Network also worshiped with two bishops, learned about vital ministries in the defining mountainous region, and recognized grant winners and donors.
“God has made Appalachia uniquely poised, peculiarly gifted, to do this work of building a beloved community,” said Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, resident bishop of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference and Susquehanna Conference, speaking at a dinner on Oct. 6. “Maybe what God was planning was that he was setting the stage for the creation of a minority culture that would someday lead a denomination in building beloved community.”
About 35 clergy and lay members participated in the “50th Anniversary Assembly,” held at Oglebay resort with networking, learning and mealtime sessions hosted at the nearby House of the Carpenter and Christ United Methodist Church.
Speaking on the theme topic at opening worship, Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton said the beloved community envisioned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and inspired by 1 Thessalonians 5:11 is opposite of what's playing out now in The United Methodist Church.
“Our church is splintering with certain congregations and leaders choosing to exercise a temporary disciplinary provision to disaffiliate and go either independent or to a newly emerging organization that seems to value separation more than connection,” Bickerton said. “Relationship is not dependent upon agreement, but it is dependent upon on the ‘want to’ inside, the ‘want to’ that clearly identifies that I’m stronger with you, that I’m more of the face of Jesus when I’m in your company, than I am without you.”
Bickerton, who pointed out he is a West Virginia native and “proud to be an Appalachian,” is resident bishop of the New York Annual Conference. He’s also president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops and a former chair of the United Methodist Appalachian Ministry Network (UMAMN).
The goal of building community characterized by justice, equality and love was lifted up throughout the three-day meeting as participants shared their respective missions to decrease hunger and poverty and dismantle racism. The committee that is now UMAMN was created in 1972 after a United Methodist General Conference resolution charged the church to identify and implement mission in Appalachia.
UMAMN defines Appalachia as a 205,000 square-mile region extending from southern New York to northern Mississippi, including parts or all of 20 United Methodist conferences and more than 9,500 United Methodist churches.
“We were trying to make people aware of the people of Appalachia, to demarginalize the people of Appalachia, to bring them social capital, and to reach out to them with the love and power of Jesus Christ so they, too, can enjoy … the freedom of their lives without the ridicule and deception and mocking they have received for generations prior,” said the Rev. John C. Baney, UMAMN chair, at the Oct. 6 dinner presentation.
During workshops at the House of the Carpenter, Executive Director Michael Linger talked about the impact of poverty on children and his organization’s program to build transformative relationships with youth. He encouraged churches to help schools fill gaps and support students in ways principals and teachers discern, rather than act as “a critic of the school.”
To ask schools what they need, “you first have to get in to the school. You have to build a relationship,” the Rev. Linger said. “Jesus is already there. What you need to do is go in and live like Jesus people.”
Participants toured the United Methodist-affiliated House of the Carpenter, which includes a thrift store, food pantry, cooking classes, guitar classes, recovery groups, leadership training, and a new $2 million youth center.
Other presenters included:
- The Rev. Joy Wigal, leader of ministries for unhoused or addicted persons in Zanesville, Ohio
- The Rev. Dawn Martin, staff at Hinton Center, offering firewood, home-repair and other ministries in Hayesville, North Carolina
- The Rev. Ashley Steele and Cynthia Lytle, staff at Urban Mission, providing multiple services including emergency food and shelter and wellness programs in Steubenville, Ohio
- Michael Feely, executive director at Mountain T.O.P., a camp and home-repair ministry in Coalmont, Tennessee
- William Isom II, director of Black in Appalachia, a research and education project based in Whitesburg, Tennessee
- The Rev. Lee Ann Dunlap, leader of MoCo Feeds, a weekday free lunch program in Morgan County, Ohio
The network also celebrated five grant winners in 2021 and seven in 2020, awarded during the COVID-19 pandemic when the annual in-person meetings were canceled.
Angela Bates, UMAMN executive director, expressed appreciation to 62 donors who answered the call to each give $300 in an ongoing campaign to raise more than $25,000 to sustain the organization. (Thirty-six of the donors are Holston Conference churches or individuals.) The goal is to receive at least 85 total pledges, Bates said.
At the Friday-evening “anniversary gala” hosted by Christ United Methodist Church, Bishop Moore-Koikoi preached on the beloved community. She encouraged Appalachian ministry leaders to recognize and use their resources – including a talent for building relationships and “carrying each other’s burdens” – to model for others how to live in community.
“A community where everybody has a seat at the table and access to the stuff on the table,” she said. “A community that understands that until all of us are honored and loved and respected, none of us will fully experience the blessing of God. So I’m here to encourage here. I’m here to build you up. I’m here to remind you … that God has given all of us more than we need to build beloved community.”
To support UMAMN, write a check to your local United Methodist church with “Appalachian Ministry Network, Advance #982041” on the memo line. Or, give online through United Methodist Global Ministries.
Sign up for a free weekly email subscription to The Call. Holston Conference includes 842 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia. Holston Conference's main offices are located in Alcoa, Tennessee.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.