MINERSVILLE, Pa. – White frame houses stand shoulder to shoulder, lined up and down narrow streets that criss-cross the steep hills of this town that coal mining built.
About 4,200 people live in the isolated town surrounded by miles of forested hills. The town has been buffeted economically by factory closings; unemployment is high. The nearest McDonald’s is miles away in another town.
Hard times have even hit churches. This is a predominantly Roman Catholic area but the church has closed four of its church buildings in town and 32 others in surrounding towns. Only a handful of people attend a few other churches in town.
John Buffington tells about Minersville’s situation as he explains why it’s a great time for Baptists to start a church here. “It’s a Christian community, but a non-practicing one,” he said.
Buffington and Shelby, his wife of 44 years, grew up in Minersville, which shows in his clipped Pennsylvania accent. Buffington said he always felt close to Christ as he grew up in a Catholic family. But eventually he joined First Baptist Church in Pottsville, a neighboring city.
He left Pennsylvania to serve 25 years in the U.S. Navy and then worked seven years as an employment counselor before they settled in Beaufort, N.C. They became members of First Baptist Church there.
At Beaufort he remembered how God had called him to ministry when he was 18; instead of responding, he had joined the Navy and ran away. He enrolled at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest.
About the time he got interested in church planting he learned a house was for sale in Minersville — a house they had wanted to buy years ago but couldn’t. It all led Buffington at age 65 to conclude the best place to start a new church was Minersville, which he knows very well. They bought the house and began looking to start a church.
Never bashful about his faith or anything else, Buffington started talking to friends and strangers alike about the Christ he has come to know and the possibilities of starting a new Baptist church. Many people encouraged him.
These days he makes the rounds to several smoke-filled diners in town, open only for breakfast, so he can get to know people and talk about matters of faith.
“You can always tell he’s been there; he smells like cigarette smoke,” said Shelby, wrinkling her nose. “But that’s where the people are,” Buffington replies with a smile.
More than a third of the town’s population is young people; the other big age category is senior citizens. People here have a hard edge and don’t talk easily about church.
But Buffington knows the people and how they think. They’re his people.
“Hey, I’m from over on Lytle,” he tells a woman at her front door. They talk for a moment; the woman knew Buffington’s mother. The woman steps out onto the front porch to talk some more.
Already a dozen people are attending Bible studies. The idea of a Baptist church is not completely radical to some here because they watch Southern Baptist church services on television. One couple wants Buffington to marry them, but he isn’t ordained yet. It’s on his list.
Buffington has been encouraged by the responses. Some suggest he buy one of the former Catholic church buildings as a place for Southern Baptists to worship. They’ll let it go cheap, they tell him.
But he knew he needed help. A Baptist church over in Hazleton offered sponsorship. Through the Baptist Convention of Pennsylvania and South Jersey, Buffington learned about volunteer missions teams. He began signing them up to come help.
All of which explains why a 16-member team from Shiloh Baptist Church in Chinquapin, N.C., came to Minersville for five days in early August. N.C. Baptists have a partnership with the Pennsylvan/South Jersey Convention. This summer hundreds of N.C. Baptists headed north to work.
Teams pay their own expenses, but the coordination and planning which helps such work go smoothly is coordinated by Mark Abernathy who works with N.C. Baptist Men, funded through the Cooperative Program giving of N.C. Baptist churches.
The Shiloh team arrived in two vans and wore matching bright yellow T-shirts to be as conspicuous as possible. They held a Vacation Bible School and cottage prayer meetings and went door to door to help make contacts for the new church.
Chinquapin Pastor Clay Carter, who is new to missions trips, had high hopes. He wanted the young people, including his two sons, to see how different Minersville is from Chinquapin, to see how other people live.
The kids got to see their pastor and their father knocking on doors and talking about Jesus.
Partnership missions makes trips like this one possible.