Growing up in the Appalachians Dewey Aiken can relate to the people he now serves. Though the Aiken family did not go without food, “We came real close sometimes,” he said. “I know what it is to be poor.”
Thirty-seven of the 100 poorest counties in the United States are in central Appalachia. In some areas 45 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Dewey Aiken and his wife Kathie are Mission Service Corps missionaries with Appalachian Regional Ministry (ARM), which serves not only central Appalachia, but the entire 12-state Appalachian region from New York to Alabama.
ARM operates as a ministry of 13 Baptist state conventions in partnership with the North American Mission Board and Woman’s Missionary Union. The ministry works to meet physical and spiritual needs of the people in Appalachia, strengthen existing churches and start new churches.
During a break out session at the N.C. Baptist Missions Conference April 9-10 hosted by Hickory Grove Baptist Church in Charlotte, the Aikens said that for the past seven years they coordinated the N.C. Baptist Men’s partnership in Vermont, which has grown into a Baptist State Convention partnership with New England. They spent half their time at their ministry base in Brevard.
The Aikens did not expect to become full-time missionaries. They both had good jobs, Dewey at Duke Energy and Kathie as a nurse. Yet, “the Holy Spirit moved us,” Kathie said.
Now, the Lord is moving them again. This year the Aikens transition into a new role as coordinators of the Coalfields Ministry.
N.C. Baptist Men, in partnership with ARM, developed the new ministry. While some projects will migrate south, most of the ministry will be targeted in Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Mark Abernathy, N.C. Baptist Men consultant for men’s ministry and adults, said the Coalfields Ministry seeks to specifically address poverty issues. Item distributions will be important, such as food, clothing, baby care items and school supplies. Other needs include construction and repair, sports ministry, children’s ministry and Vacation Bible School.
Twenty-four teams are committed to projects and teams are needed throughout the year. Some teams will spend a week or more in Appalachia; others just a few days.
The Aikens emphasized the importance of relationship building for effective ministry in the Appalachians. While churches are encouraged to send food and baby care items, the Aikens encourage them to go a step further and make the trip north to personally distribute those items.
One way for teams to build relationships is to serve in the same community or with the same church for several consecutive years. While serving in Vermont the Aikens knew people who committed nearly 10 years to serving in the same area.
For the North Carolina Baptists who go, it won’t take long for them to see the people in Appalachia as Kathie sees them — “they are precious, precious people.” For more information visit www.ncmissions.org.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Lilley is a researcher and writer for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.)