Son of Appalachia returns to help lead ‘my people’ to Christ
EDITORS’ NOTE: March 4-11 marks the 2007 Week of Prayer for North American missions. This is the first of eight stories Baptist Press will run featuring North American Mission Board missionaries and their ministries supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering.
HURRICANE, W. Va. (BP)--It’s another early morning for Bill Barker in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. He leaves home earlier than usual in his brown Toyota minivan, which suddenly tops a mountain crest. He pulls off the road to talk to God.
“I look out across the mountains as the morning mist and fog begin to lift,” he says. “You can still see the green valleys below filled with fog. It’s such a beautiful sight. I stand there and pray, ‘Lord, please send revival and fill these mountains again with Your glory even as You fill these valleys with the morning mist.’”
In the words of the old John Denver song “Country Roads,” Barker, a North American Mission Board missionary, several years ago finally let the country roads take him home to West Virginia, the place where he belonged.
Born in Boone County, W.Va., Barker grew up in the state’s rugged coal mining country but left in 1969 with plans to never return. But it was a higher calling -– God Himself -– who told Barker seven years ago that he should “go home” to West Virginia after a 32-year absence.
As a native Appalachian, Barker believes he is uniquely qualified for his current post -- director of Appalachian Regional Ministry. ARM is a partnership ministry of the North American Mission Board, the Woman’s Missionary Union and 11 state conventions.
“[N]ot only am I a native of Appalachia, but over these past 32 years, God has been preparing me to come back and minister in West Virginia -– first as a bivocational pastor working out in the secular market as a marketing rep for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co., in management for a grocery firm and later in the insurance business,” Barker says. “Through all this, God was preparing me for what I’m doing today.”
And what Barker does today is drive 50,000 miles a year and spend as many as 180 nights away from his home and wife Arlene -– sleeping in private homes, motels or in associational offices.
As head of Appalachian Regional Ministry based in Hurricane, W.Va., Barker directs a Southern Baptist organization that responds to the physical and spiritual needs of the people of Appalachia. ARM’s main role is to share Christ with his people -- the people of Appalachia.
Barker is one of more than 5,300 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. He’s one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 4-11. The 2007 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $57 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like Barker.
What does the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering mean to Bill Barker and Appalachian Regional Ministry?
“The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering is one of the most effective ways of being able to reach out and touch lives,” Barker says. “Because Southern Baptists give and because they care, I don’t have to spend my time out trying to raise money. Instead, the Annie Armstrong offering gives me a way to devote myself 100 percent to the ministry.”
ARM covers an area that starts north of Atlanta and extends to Pennsylvania, covering most of that state except metro Philadelphia. It also includes Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia and all of West Virginia.
Appalachia is a very diverse region of the United States, Barker says.
The north Georgia mountains -– where the Appalachian Mountains begin -- include people who are transplants from Florida, south Georgia and Alabama. But as you move into the coal field areas of central and northern Appalachia, you come across people whose families have lived there for generations. They’re isolated by the geography, mountainous terrain and profound poverty of the area. Only 26 percent of central Appalachians have local access to the Internet, Barker notes.
While coal mining has died out in some Appalachian hamlets, coal is still king in many others -– including eastern Kentucky. There, 18-wheelers packed with coal barrel down narrow two-lane highways on the way to be shipped out on rail cars. Or if a river is nearby, barges may be used to haul the coal up or downstream. Regardless, the coal is destined to run many of America’s power plants.
“Our people here are very good people,” Barker says. “They’re quiet, loving and kind people. Religion is still a big part of their lives. It’s mountain religion. They love to sing and they love to make music. They are a very artistic people. They love to draw, carve and create with their hands.
“They are a hard-working people. Appalachian people will give you all they’ve got. They may be a little distant at first but once they become your friend, you have a friend for life. Appalachian people are people who love the land. It’s part of who they are. And they are close-knit within families. They respect tradition. And Appalachian people have great respect for pastors and clergy -– once they’re proven themselves worthy.”
At the same time, Barker believes Appalachian churches -– the ones still open -- can be overly legalistic, emphasizing a “saved-by-works” religion instead of salvation by God’s grace. He says locals tend to believe that people are saved by what they do or don’t do, by dressing a certain way, or by using a certain Bible translation.
“As Southern Baptists, we have a wonderful opportunity to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the mountains of Appalachia and tell them God loves them, Christ died for them, and they’re saved by grace through faith, not by works, lest any many should boast,” Barker says, paraphrasing the Apostle Paul.
“As a North American Mission Board missionary, my job is to recruit volunteers to come into the mountains to do volunteer ministry,” Barker says. “I work with the people in the mountains to help them understand how they can use volunteers. And then I work with the churches and associations to help them understand how they can come in and assist the short-term volunteer missions.”
Working to share Jesus in Appalachia means ministering to millions of people without Christ and to the poorest of America’s poor.
“Within Appalachia, we have 37 of the 100 poorest counties in America,” Barker says. “Twenty-nine of those counties exist in eastern Kentucky, where 38 percent of adults lack either a high school diploma or a GED equivalent.”
Calling the lostness of Appalachia “overwhelming,” Barker notes, “Within the 10-state region I cover, there are 13 million-plus unchurched men, women, boys and girls.” And although Appalachia has churches around every bend in every little mountain hamlet, overall church attendance is down, he says. Many churches have closed.
“Seventy percent of the Appalachian Mountain people are unchurched. That percentage is the same for West Virginia, where I live. In West Virginia, there’s one Southern Baptist church for every 7,200 unchurched persons. If I go over into Portsmouth, Ohio, I’m in an area which has only one Southern Baptist church for every 16,000 unchurched persons.
“If I drive over into the nine-county Pittsburgh area, I’m in an area with more unchurched persons than in the entire state of South Carolina or Kentucky, or twice the number in West Virginia. In the Pittsburgh area, there’s only one Southern Baptist church for every 61,000 unchurched persons. Yet, it’s an area of great opportunity -– but an area that needs Jesus.
“Even today, after many years as a Southern Baptist missionary, I drive across these mountains but have to pull off to the side of the road occasionally to weep over the lostness of Appalachia, my people.”
Barker recruits volunteers to minister on several different levels, explaining, “On one hand, we do ministry that involves cultivation evangelism. Volunteers come in and hold backyard Bible clubs, run Vacation Bible Schools, distribute the ‘JESUS’ video, conduct block parties and a host of other things. Sometimes we work with our resort missionaries who are involved in resort ministries. Or maybe we work with a church planter to help plant new churches. We also work with church construction or renovation. But our ultimate goal is to reach people with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
“As best as we can determine across Appalachia today, there are about 50,000 Southern Baptist volunteers coming to the region on an annual basis,” Barker says. “And we thank God for everyone that comes, though that’s not nearly enough. But we rejoice when volunteers come because for every 10-12 volunteers, there’s one profession of faith.
“And when volunteers come and focus exclusively on intentional evangelism in a particular county, we know that for every four volunteers, there’s one decision for Christ. In that county, we’ve seen 2,500 professions of faith in the last five years.”
Barker says he’s just a preacher who “loves to get out and knock on doors and visit with people -– maybe drink a cup of coffee at the kitchen table with them. And often when I’m out working with a pastor, I’ll just go out and go cold door-knocking with him in the community.
“I’ve never had a door slammed in my face. I’ve never had anyone to say, ‘You can’t come into my home.’ Everybody respects religion in the mountains.”