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‘What are you here to take?’


Self-Development of People webinar discusses rural poverty and the church’s challenges addressing it

July 16,  2022

Photo by Steven Weeks via Unsplash

The Rev. Wayne Gnatuk ministered for 15 years in a West Virginia coal mining valley and saw the same thing happen over and over.

Church work crews would come in to do things like make repairs on homes and do other things to help the community — which was great, “but in the process, they were always very glad to tell me what we needed to be doing that would make things better.”

They thought they should bring industry into the area, increase population density so they could afford services like sewage, which would increase the property values, and on and on, not realizing many of the challenges residents faced. For one: The coal company owned 87% of the land, even after it had extracted every bit of coal it could in the area. So, residents were left to deal with the aftermath, including polluted water and collapsed roads. But development was not an option.

“Yet so many outsiders would come in, including well-meaning church people would roll into our valley and take a look at all this and blame the people that lived on the land, because they weren’t doing anything to develop their community into a beautiful, beautiful place,” Gnatuk said. “That’s a huge problem in coal-mining areas. It’s also a problem in agricultural areas.”

Far from major media and business hubs, rural areas and the poverty they face are often widely misunderstood. The Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) focused on rural poverty in a recent episode of its webinar series “The Struggle is Real.”

The panel, led by SDOP staff the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson and Margaret Mwale, featured people with a variety of experiences with rural poverty from PC(USA) national office staff to ministers and community leaders in rural areas. It also featured people such as Gnatuk with extensive experience tackling the issues rural communities face.

“As church folks, we need to learn to look beyond our noses and start asking questions about what’s really going on in that community,” Gnatuk said.

The question people in rural areas often ask when outsiders come to their town is, “what do they intend to take from us?” said Jim King, president and CEO of the Federation of Appalachian Housing Enterprises, a not-for-profit based in Berea, Kentucky. “They’re already prepared to be wary of, ‘What are you here to take?’ because that’s our narrative. That is the story of who we are around here because so much has been taken from us.”

Sometimes it’s the land, be it for mining or large agricultural conglomerates that buy up family farms. Sometimes it’s labor, like factories in Western North Carolina, where Molly Hemstreet is founder of Opportunity Threads and co-executive director of the Industrial Commons in Morganton, North Carolina.

“One in four folks in our community are working in factories,” Hemstreet said. “We’re one of the least unionized parts of the United States, and so it’s contract labor. So, if you’re sitting on a chair or piece of furniture made in the U.S., it’s probably made here in North Carolina, and it’s got somebody else’s name on it.”

Ownership is outside the area, and the labor force is faceless and hidden by design, Hemstreet says. The work she does is geared toward creating more local ownership and entrepreneurship in the Morganton area. She encouraged churches to think about the products they use and how many lives they have touched.

Hemstreet said churches in her area were working to address another challenge, rural gentrification, which has grown since the Covid pandemic began as more people work remotely and move to areas where the cost of living is lower. That has driven up property values. Some area churches are helping buy land in the area to hold as land trusts, preventing longtime residents from losing their homes due to increased tax bills on homes with rising values.

Frank Taylor, a team leader in the Winston County Self-Help Cooperative in Jackson, Mississippi, pointed out that people who are Black and other communities of color have historically faced challenges such as Jim Crow and continue to deal with racism.

“I learned the best practice is investment in people,” Taylor said.

Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Self-Development of People webinar

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Shelby Andrews, 1001 Apprentice, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Angie Andriot, Research Associate, Research Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

Gracious and loving God, share with us your creative spirit as we engage in new ways to minister in the midst of our community. Keep us mindful of you as we seek to remind those we encounter that you are indeed mindful of them. Amen.

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