WHITE OAK, Tenn. -- Last summer, the Rev. Mark Fuerstenau and his mission team spent a week expanding, painting and re-roofing a mobile home for a family of five in White Oak, Tenn.
The volunteers were quietly surprised one day when they saw the mother fry up a pound of bacon – and nothing else – for the family meal.
“We wondered about it and then we realized: That’s all they had,” said Fuerstenau. “They make do with very little.”
White Oak is located within the Holston Conference. But when a United Methodist team comes to fix their roof or a United Methodist van delivers a box of food, the people of White Oak assume they were sent by Henderson Settlement, a mission in Kentucky.
Based in Frakes, Ky., Henderson is five miles from the Tennessee state line and 18 miles from White Oak. Many of the 2,800 volunteers that come through Henderson each year are dispatched to repair dilapidated homes within a 20-mile radius of Frakes.
“These are the people the scripture tells us to take care of,” said Fuerstenau, pastor of Kossuth Zion United Methodist Church in Spencerville, Ohio. In August, he and a team representing two Ohio churches drove 5 ½ hours to serve needy families in White Oak, located in Campbell County, Tenn.
Congregations all over the U.S are familiar with the 88-year-old Henderson Settlement, which now has 1,500 acres, a farm, and multiple ministries to employ and serve residents in this pocket of Appalachia.
Many of the churches sending work teams or donations are located in the Midwest or Northeast, said Michael Feely, director of mission advancement. From Holston Conference, 15 churches send mission teams and 63 churches provide financial support.
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“We enjoyed the experience of helping people and thought the program was well operated,” said the Rev. John Grimm, pastor of Holston's Mount Olivet United Methodist Church in Galax, Va.
Last summer, Grimm led a mission team to do home-repair work for Henderson and will return in 2014. Another Holston church, First United Methodist of Alcoa, Tenn., financially supports Henderson’s youth ministry.
This October, a team of Holston United Methodist Women will spend a week at Henderson, doing light construction work and other mission projects.
However, the fact that Henderson has a satellite campus in White Oak – located in the Oak Ridge District of Holston Conference – is not well-known. (The closest Holston church is Jellico United Methodist, 11 miles from White Oak.)
Jerry Lambdin, mission outreach director, says the White Oak Center was opened in 2001 to accommodate overflow of volunteers.
“We knew we were turning away a lot of groups over the summer because we were near to full capacity,” said Lambdin, referring to the 200 beds and other accommodations available at the Frakes Center.
The White Oak Center accommodates 48 volunteers at once. Some work teams request the “intimate” White Oak dorm over the larger, busier Frakes site, Lambdin said.
“Most initially are sent there due to wanting a week that has already filled up,” he said. “Afterwards they have that connection and continue to request the White Oak site.”
“If you’ve never been on a mission trip, this is a good place to come,” said Mark Lemons, Henderson executive director, referring to the accommodations and vetted work projects. “We make it as easy as possible for volunteers.”
The unemployment rate for Campbell County – home of Jellico, LaFollette, and Jacksboro – is 10.8 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tennessee’s unemployment rate is 8.5 percent.
Henderson staff members say the statistics don’t reflect their research and experience. “We think the actual unemployment for our clients on both side of the state line is 48 percent,” said Lambdin.
Henderson has a history of tackling the region’s long-term poverty through home repair, food, utility assistance, agriculture programs, new mother support, youth and senior activities, thrift stores, crafts, education and literacy programs. About 200 families receive assistance from the mission each month, according to Feely.
“The cost of living here is lower but people are just barely scraping by. That hasn’t changed in 200 years,” Feely said.
While struggling financially, Henderson aims to adapt its mission to current needs and address the causes of poverty. Surveys show that “more than anything else, people need jobs,” Lemons said. This summer, Henderson employed 31 full-time workers and 23 seasonal employees.
Now that the busy work-camp season is ebbing away, Henderson Settlement faces lay-offs. The focus now is on fundraising, bringing jobs to the area, and beginning a recovery ministry to address the regional drug problem, Feely said.
“We have one of the highest rates in Kentucky for prescription drug abuse,” Feely said of Bell County, Ky.
For several weeks, Henderson staff and community members have been traveling to Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., to worship at its Thursday-night recovery service. Their plan is to launch a Recovery at Cokesbury ministry in Frakes.
“We desperately need for people to come up and serve, but we also want people to come and help us figure out some of this stuff,” Feely said. “Jesus talked about this and John Wesley sure did. We are a connectional group, and we want to partner with churches in Holston and a lot of other places, too.”
“It boils down to our theme,” said Lemons. “Love your neighbor.”
* "Health clinic opens in Frakes" (Middlesboro Daily News, 11/6/13)
* More background/ how to give (General Board of Global Ministries)
* "Atchley connects Tazewell churches in new position" (The Call, 8/9/13)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.