New poverty worker in Big Stone Gap District: Koni Purscell arrives from Nebraska

New poverty worker in Big Stone Gap District: Koni Purscell arrives from Nebraska

A few days after her April 1 arrival in Big Stone Gap, the Rev. Koni Purscell already seems to fit right in.

As a Nebraskan, she doesn't sound anything like the southwest Virginian pastor who is carrying in 50-pound bags of seed potatoes and dumping them at her feet. (See photo.)

But she already moves with familiarity in the cramped old house that serves as a district office. She smiles easily when she talks about the ministry she traveled from plain to mountain to inherit.

"My hope is that I'll spend the next 10 years here and then retire," she says, "but no one has a crystal ball."

Purscell, age 55, is Holston's newest Church and Community Worker, assigned to the Big Stone Gap District Church and Community Renewal Project.

The position was previously held by Nancy Hobbs, who retired in January after 10 years of service. See more on Nancy Hobbs.

Staggering poverty

In the United Methodist Church, "Church and Community Worker" is a special category of missionary service under the General Board of Global Ministries. Workers with this title might serve as nurses, builders, immigration lawyers, or economic developers.

In the Big Stone Gap District, the Church and Community Worker's responsibilities are varied, according to the Rev. Archer Coppedge, Big Stone Gap District superintendent. They include:

  • working with the local food banks and thrift stores
  • working with the county extension agents (how to cook the food you get with food stamps and food banks)
  • working with the Mountain Empire Older Citizens (utility costs,insurance advice, food preparation assistance, transportation, financial management)
  • providing emergency assistance for utility costs, medicine, and rent

Purscell's new ministry also involves several seasonal projects, coordinated through six area food pantries or the United Methodist Women.

In July, the district ministers to children through a week-long day camp at Fort Blackmore Camp. In August, they give out school supplies to needy children. In December, the Christmas Cart provides a box of food and gifts to families.

"The most exciting work," says Coppedge, "is with the Seeds of Bounty program, in which vegetable seeds, seed potatoes, and some flower seeds are distributed through the food banks to assist persons in growing their own food."

Purscell will spend most of her time addressing the staggering poverty of the region, Coppedge said.

Of the three counties comprising the heart of Big Stone Gap District, Lee County has 23 percent of its population living below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Wise County has 22 percent, and Scott County has 17 percent. Statewide, 10 percent of all Virginians live below the poverty level, which is $22,350 in annual income for a family of four.

Saying 'yes' to God

Purscell grew up on a farm in central Iowa. After graduating from Morningside College and Christian Theological Seminary, she was ordained in the Christian Church in 1981.

She remains a Disciple of Christ pastor, although she has worked in the United Methodist Church since 1991.

"I'm from a fifth-generation family in the Christian Church, but it takes the kind of connectionalism that you have in the United Methodist Church to allow for a Church and Community Worker program," she said.

"It's the real down and dirty kind of ministry that John Wesley promoted."

In September 2010, Purscell spoke to the Rev. Kathleen Masters about accepting a new ministry challenge in a year or so. Masters, executive secretary for Church and Community Workers in the General Board of Global Ministries, told Purscell about Hobbs' approaching retirement in Holston Conference.

"Koni had experience in rural congregations, so it made sense that she would be a good match for Holston," Masters said. "She has had parish-wide, conference-wide, and district-wide experience in facilitating events and programs."

See Purscell's page on the GBGM site.

It was a big move -- and sooner than Purscell expected. But she asked herself, "Am I really going to do something different?" She accepted the assignment with a resolve to "say all my 'yeses' to God."

In late March, the pastor from the Cornhusker State arrived in the Old Dominion State. Her husband, the Rev. Ken Purscell, stayed behind to finish his appointment at Newman Grove UMC and Looking Glass UMC. He is projected for appointment as a part-time pastor at Flatwoods UMC in the Big Stone Gap District in June, Coppedge said.

Coal-mining culture

Koni Purscell jumped in with both feet. At 10 a.m. on her first day in Big Stone Gap District, she answered a phone call from a woman needing help with her electric bill.

In Nebraska's Elkhorn Valley District, Purscell worked a lot with action teams and youth ministries. The big difference between Nebraska and southwest Virginia, she says, is need.

"Any of the needs we had there are times 10 here," she says. "We might have done a Christmas project for 50 in Nebraska, but we'll do that for 500 here.""

In adjusting to her new territory, "I find myself treading lightly," Purscell says. "I love the mountains, but I don't understand the coal-mining culture. I have to be careful that I don't make assumptions."

Her plans are to maintain existing ministries, but also to visit local congregations and assemble a "Dream Team" to create new initiatives.

"This is good, so what's the next step?" she said. "That's a driving force for me. How can we make this better? How do we make it so people can be more self-sustaining?"

Among the ideas she's considering are community gardens and cooking classes.

"I'm also surprised by the percentage of children who are being raised by their grandparents," she said (75 percent in the Big Stone Gap District, according to Coppedge). "How can we help grandparents be nurturing parents?"

To support Purscell's ministry in the Big Stone Gap District, write a check to your local church. For project support, write "Advance #141" on the memo line. For covenant relationship support through the GBGM, write "Advance #701" on the memo line. Donations for specific projects (seeds, school supplies, Christmas gifts) are also welcome.

Other CCW news

Holston Conference has four Church and Community Workers, second only to Virginia Conference which has five. The West Virginia Conference also has four Church and Community Workers.

Other Holston workers are all based at Project Crossroads in Marion, Va.: Linda Stransky, director of new ministries development; Mark Stransky, director of housing; and the Rev. Harry Howe, executive director.

Randy Hildebrant, former Church and Community Worker at Jubilee Project, has been reassigned to Elkhorn Valley District in Nebraska Conference, effective June 1. His focus will be rural church revitalization and leadership development.

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