Rebuilding in Appalachia
by Judith M. Dinsmore
In rural eastern Kentucky, the tree-covered Appalachians tumble downward to meet in narrow hollows—hollers—that are sometimes only wide enough for a creek, a line of houses on one side, and a road on the other. The town of Neon, where the OPC has had a church plant for twenty-two years, lies a few miles up one of these hollers next to a creek called Wright Fork.
During the night of July 28, heavy rains poured down the mountains, filled up the creek beds, and flooded hollers across eastern Kentucky, including Neon. Pastor Jay Bennett woke up at 3 a.m. to watch from his second-story apartment as their family’s Toyota Corolla floated down Main Street. He called his wife, Andrea, who was out of state visiting family; soon after, cell service broke down. The next morning, Bennett waded through several feet of water downstairs in the renovated storefront that is the church building. The windows were all broken. The water was dark brown. The watermark was six feet high.
Behind the church and across the alley is a doctor’s office and, above it, a halfway house. The watermarks on this building are higher, more like eight feet. Gary, a resident of the halfway house, was watching the water rise with his housemates when a car floated slowly by. A couple and their ten-year-old son were stranded on top. Gary tied sheets together and lowered them out the window. The family held on to the sheets, climbed up the awning over the front door, and then through the window.
Forty people died in the flooding across several counties. The aftermath was catastrophic: homes lifted off their foundations, schools and businesses filled with muck, cars and trucks belly-up in creeks. Major news media coverage pitched July’s flood as the last straw for these counties, the crowning disaster of decades of economic devastation, rising addiction, and collapsing infrastructure.
Seth Long, elder at Neon OPC, has a different perspective.
What a Blessing It Has Become
At worship on a bright and sunny Sunday in October, Long led in intercessory prayer. After becoming Reformed in the 1990s, he was the one who instigated the OP plant in Neon in 2000. Before prayer, pastor Bennett took requests from the congregation. Long then carefully addressed each one, going from members of the congregation to their neighbors, friends, and family. Finally, he brought up the flood. “What a tragedy it was,” he reflected to the Lord. “And what a blessing it has become.”
Seth Long and his wife, Sheryl, moved to the area thirty years ago from central Pennsylvania where they both grew up Mennonite, so that Seth could take a job with the nonprofit HOMES, Inc.—Housing Oriented Ministries Established for Service. HOMES provides affordable housing solutions to low-income families, and Long now serves as director. Its eleven employees coordinate funding for and the building of new homes, as well as managing fifty rental units. “We’re the only developer around that will buy a piece of property, build a house, and sell it,” Long explained. No other developer touches this community: the cost of building is too high, the affordability too low.
It wasn’t always this way. When coal companies came to Letcher County in the early 1900s, the area boomed. Neon had department stores, a car dealership, and a movie theater. Jenkins, a few miles up KY 805, was a model coal town—literally. Pictures of its tidy rows of identical homes built by the coal company were used to lure immigrants to the area, where they worked in the mines and were paid in scrip, not cash, that could be redeemed only at the company store. Midcentury, jobs began to decline due to mechanization in the mines, and the decline continued as the coal industry contracted through the decades. Coal jobs in Kentucky fell 69 percent between 1989 and 2019.
When coal left, Long explained, the local infrastructure, which had been propped up by the taxes on the industry, could no longer function. For example, “our electric rates are some of the highest in the country,” he said. The grid was built to accommodate the mines; now, the utility’s fixed costs have to be covered by the remaining residents, whose incomes have shrunk. Median utility costs for Letcher County, according to a study by Virginia Tech, are between 41.5–57.7 percent of monthly income.
It’s tempting to assume that the community needs a big employer back in the area, a silver-bullet solution. But Long has for a long time argued for a combination of many small-scale efforts, instead. His mind never stops churning with ideas. The maples on his mountainous fifty-five acres send their sweet sap downhill into a 400-gallon steel milk tank next to a homebuilt sugar shack, where Long is making a name for Kentucky maple syrup. Last summer, he and Sheryl grew enough produce on three-tenths of an acre for twenty families as a Community Supported Agriculture farm. Now the winter sun is hitting solar panels on his roof and roofs around Letcher County, thanks to HOMES, in an effort to cut energy costs.
The flood has shaken loose some old assumptions about what the area needs. “There are conversations happening in the community that I have not been a part of for thirty years, around housing,” Long explained. The local newspaper ran two stories in October on a possible subdivision to provide housing above the floodplain. Long has been put on a steering committee to make a strategic housing plan for the county.
“The crisis is hard to manage after the flood. But there are so many opportunities,” he said.
A Home in Neon
When a 2019 New York Times op-ed advocated for investing in cities in Appalachia, not the rural areas, Long pushed back. “The most efficient solution isn’t always the one that does right by people,” he wrote in a published letter to the editor.
To do right by people, you have to know them. And in rural Kentucky, that takes time. After thirty years, Long is still seen as an outsider. In a region with a long history of being exploited by big outside interests, he explained, people are slow to trust.
And they’re tough, said Art Allen, a deacon from Shiloh OPC in Raleigh, North Carolina, who has volunteered in Neon before and came to serve as site coordinator for the church’s rebuild. It’s a mistake to think that the flood has upended the community, like it might in a more prosperous area. “Life here is hard,” Allen reflected. “And the people here are hard. They have gone through hardship before, and they will go through it again.”
Even while Neon OPC moves toward meeting some local needs exacerbated by the flood, helped by a member who works for the postal service and knows well the needs along her route, the church will move slowly. Neon OPC is walking uphill when it comes to building trust, another church member observed, given that the pastor’s family is from Georgia and the elder’s family is from Pennsylvania. And, as Bennett pointed out, it is Presbyterian in a doggedly Congregationalist culture.
Yet in this, too, the flood may have been an opportunity for the church to demonstrate both its long-term investment in Neon and its connection to a broader body of believers, as out-of-state help poured in. “The day after the flood, David Nakhla called me,” remembered Bennett. Soon an OPC disaster response team was onsite to begin mucking out. Since then, 120 volunteers have helped with cleaning out and rebuilding; $300,000 has been donated for relief.
The church is weeks ahead of the other local businesses, Bennett said. The bank across the street only recently opened its doors; the post office is still closed. The firehouse moved across town, to a building that hadn’t been flooded. The library hopes to open in summer 2023. There’s still no trash pickup, and local schools are packing students into the usable buildings.
But on October 23, Neon OPC worshiped again in its storefront on Neon’s quiet main street.
The author is managing editor of New Horizons. New Horizons, December 2022.