Christmastime in Ducktown: Gifts enliven Appalachia youth

DUCKTOWN, Tenn. (BP)--Some of the youngest children write to Santa Claus, some write to Jesus. The teenagers, meanwhile, write to the Copper Basin Crisis Center.

They write their letters hoping for Christmas gifts that their families could never afford.

“They have a pretty nice Christmas, most of them do,” says Al Patterson, director of missions for the Copper Basin Baptist Association in the eastern Tennessee corner of Appalachia adjoining western North Carolina and north Georgia.

For nearly 20 years, the Copper Basin Baptist Association has received letters from children and teens from families in Ducktown, Tenn., and nearby communities who receive food and other assistance through the association’s crisis center. This year, the Copper Basin Crisis Center has been providing 650 needy families with a bag of groceries each month and, at times, various other types of assistance.

Hardship typically is evident in the Christmas letters, Patterson’s wife Margaret, who heads up the yearly effort, says.

“Momma only makes $100 a month,” a 17-year-old, the oldest of seven children, wrote in a letter asking for clothes, deodorant and a CD player. “Please, a lot of clothes (need bad).”

His family’s hardship was compounded immeasurably earlier in December when his 13-year-old brother was killed in a traffic accident.

He likewise had asked for clothes, deodorant and a CD player in his letter to the crisis center. “I need you to help my Mom,” the 13-year-old wrote. “There are a lot of us kids and she don’t make enough money to keep the bills paid and buy us things for [Christmas]. Thank you.”

A local church memeber opened an account at a bank for the boy’s meager funeral; local donors paid the bill in full.

The Pattersons, who have served at the Copper Basin Baptist Association since 1981, both hail from the Georgia side of the tri-state region of Appalachia. They grew up in Lebanon Baptist Church in Epworth, where she made a profession of faith in Christ in 1954 and he did the same the following year.

In 1978, when 700 copper mining and milling jobs were terminated in the Ducktown area by the then-Tennessee Chemical Co., Patterson was serving as pastor of one of the association’s 12 churches and began pondering how to minister amid such economic trauma.

In 1986, the company announced it was phasing out the remaining 900 jobs in the region.

“That’s devastating for a small area,” Patterson said. “They were the only good-paying jobs around.”

With the Pattersons envisioning a crisis center, the company gave the Copper Basin Baptist Association one of its buildings and six acres for the fledgling ministry.

The couple and several others from the association took training in how to help with job placement and resume writing, but by 1988 when the Copper Basin Crisis Center was ready to open, it had become apparent that most pressing needs were among the elderly and among needy families who had been in the region for years -- “people in the woodwork” as Patterson describes them.

“Many of them had scratched out a living on a small farm,” Patterson said. They had no retirement savings and had supplemented their minimal incomes by working at sawmills and other seasonal jobs.

“We hadn’t been aware of the needs among these people until we began to minister,” Patterson said.

The needs can be dire, Margaret Patterson added. She recounted a time when, for example, two church deacons visited a woman and her disabled husband and found only two cans of food in their cupboard and nothing in the refrigerator.

Patterson was a bricklayer by trade when he sensed a call to ministry in 1975 at the age of 32. “I didn’t know what God had in store,” he said. “I felt like maybe I’d continue to lay brick and pastor a small church.” But the congregation he was serving, Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, asked him to serve fulltime. And when Copper Basin Baptist Association’s director of missions retired, Patterson’s service as the association’s moderator prompted his selection for the job in 1981.

When the Copper Basin Crisis Center opened in 1988, the Pattersons thought 75 or 100 families a month might receive a helping hand. “We didn’t expect it to become as big as it has,” Al Patterson said. The ministry now encompasses three buildings, and a fourth is under construction, a 24-by-50-foot structure that will include a walk-in freezer. And mission groups from several different states now venture to Ducktown to work alongside volunteers from the association’s churches and other community groups.

In addition to distributing 650 bags of grocery a month, the Copper Basin Crisis Center is a storehouse for clothing, used furniture and household items for needy families. And if extra funds come in -– from donors who “tell us to use it however it’s needed” -– the center helps with medical expenses, utility bills and other needs that arise in times of crisis.

More than 800 Christmas letters from children and teens were received at the center this year. “We try to adopt those out,” Patterson said, referencing local churches and organizations that participate in the outreach as well as several Baptist associations across Tennessee.

“We don’t tell them what to do [for a child or a teen],” he noted, “but what they feel like the Lord would have them do.”

The women’s ministry of Dyer Baptist Association on the other side of the state, for example, is in their third year of partnering with the Copper Basin Crisis Center’s Christmas project. This year, a truck and trailer and a church bus arrived from the Dyer association full of clothing and toys for 50 children along with 84 bicycles refurbished by the association’s men’s ministry.

“We are still getting letters,” Patterson said the week before Christmas. “We will do something for every child that we receive a letter from.”

From the crisis center’s humble beginnings, Patterson said, “It’s amazing to see how God did it. He brought it out of nothing. Our churches are small and did not have the means. But God put it together.”

Looking forward in faith, Margaret Patterson noted, “To see God provide, to see God do things that only God can do, you can go back to that -- that He can do it again.”

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