Arson, coal decline, yet Black Mtn. perseveres
There are no signs of the arson that charred the insides of the historic church, which dates back to the days when this was a working coal camp. The soot and stain and odor of acrid smoke are long gone. So, too, are the water-logged furnishings, ruined in the mad dash by firefighters to extinguish the blaze.
Church members refused to leave Black Mountain in shambles.
"They never missed a worship service because of the fire," said Bill Wallace, director of missions for Kentucky's Upper Cumberland Baptist Association. "They never gave up. That says so much about their determination to serve the Lord and to reach this community with the gospel."
Black Mountain Missionary Baptist Church was built in Kenvir in 1937, back in the days when Harlan County's coal mines were bustling. Hardy men took turns working shifts in the darkness of underground corridors far beneath the surface of Kentucky's tallest peak. They lived with the constant danger of mine collapses and explosions.
Out of that setting, the church sprang forth, a sentinel to the miners and their families.
Most of those mines have long since played out, triggering an exodus to faraway cities where factories provided the jobs unemployed miners need to support their families.
Black Mountain has persevered through all the ups and downs of the coal industry. That's why Wallace was confident the church would rebound when, on a chilly February day in 2012, an arsonist broke in and set fire in the basement.
By the time firefighters arrived, flames had burned through the basement ceiling and into the sanctuary. When fire trucks returned to the station, church members got their first glimpse at what remained -- a soggy black mess.
Wallace said the sight could have been disheartening for the congregation, but deacon Ed Lyttle stepped forward with encouraging words. "We can bring her back to life," Lyttle told church members.
"And that's just what they did, with God's help," Wallace said. "They went to work. And I really believe it probably looks better today than it did in 1937."
By big-city standards, Black Mountain may not impress. This is no megachurch. It has space to seat only about 100 people. But in this shrinking mining community, that's more than enough.
About 30 people attend worship services at Black Mountain on an average Sunday morning, enough to carry out some noteworthy ministries. They operate an ambitious feeding initiative to provide backpacks filled with canned goods to children in the community who might otherwise go hungry. They send money to the Southern Baptists' Cooperative Program to fund missionaries who share the Gospel around the world. They baptized five new converts over the past year, even though they lost to their pastor to a sister church in Virginia. And they stay busying doing ministry outreach projects, like one that is modernizing the home of 83-year-old Mildred Asbury.
With a warm smile and glowing white hair, Asbury is thrilled with her new bathroom and the bedroom that's now taking shape. A Christian since her teenage years, Asbury says she's thankful to God and the folks at Black Mountain for the improvements.
"We've got some good people," she said.
As director of missions, Wallace is an unabashed cheerleader for all the Kentucky Baptist churches in Harlan County. He's first to offer thanks for the good work they do amid what are often difficult circumstances. That's why he's especially pleased with Black Mountain.
"Their attitude after the fire was that we're not going to let this beat us," Wallace said. "They said, 'This is God's house, and we're going to put it back in a way that will bring honor to Him.' And that's just what they did."