Appalachia: Preachers 'doing what Jesus would do'
The Southern Baptist preachers arrived in the mountain region to offer help and hope in communities where a collapsed coal economy has spawned widespread unemployment, poverty, and rampant substance abuse.
Now in their 60s, both men have spent their lives in ministry and academic roles across the South and beyond. They brought to the Kentucky mountains an enthusiasm that has others taking note, and their congregations are swelling with new believers as a result.
"They're doing what Jesus would do, taking the good news to people who really need it," said Paul Badgett, a regional consultant with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. "They're setting a great example for all of us."
Look any direction from Allen Baptist Church in Prestonsburg, where Searcy serves as pastor, or McDowell (Ky.) First Baptist Church, where Scott serves, and you see lush, green mountains rising skyward. But beyond the area's beauty, a deeper look reveals great pain.
People have been laid off from the mines and have no prospects for jobs to provide for their families. Friends and relatives have been forced to move to distant cities for work. Drug abuse and alcoholism are rampant. Funerals for addicts who have overdoses on powerful painkillers have become all too common.
Lunch time in the local schools speaks to the widespread poverty. Nearly 90 percent of the students have family incomes so low that they qualify for free or reduced-priced meals.
"The greatest challenge is the sense of hopelessness that I find in many people due to the lack of jobs and the absence of any promise of jobs in the future," Scott said.
The folks at Allen Baptist Church have a comprehensive ministry strategy that includes a substance abuse recovery program for people struggling with addiction and an anti-hunger initiative that provides backpacks filled with food for children. At McDowell, one of the ministries involves teenagers growing vegetables on church property to provide fresh produce to a food ministry that caters to the poor.
"If you're not fulfilling the command to love your neighbors as yourself, it's going to hinder your ability to preach the Gospel," Searcy said. "What's that old saying? People don't care what you preach until they know you care."
Searcy and Scott said they arrived in Appalachia to find a dedicated group of pastors and Christians who, though outnumbered, have been faithfully working to offer the hope of Christ to hurting people. The newcomers heaped praise on those pastors and on their church members for working feverishly to meet needs and share the Gospel.
"The people of the mountains are a caring and loving people," Searcy said. "They're very honest, straight-forward people who, as they would put it, don't put on airs. They're honest to a fault, even those who are not in church and not even saved. The old saying they'd give you the shirt of their back is true."
"There's a misconception that people in the Appalachian Mountains are stupid and dragging shotguns behind them," Scott added. "Nothing could be farther from the truth. Some of the most brilliant people I've ever met are in these mountains. Our churches are filled with them, and they're working hard to share Jesus, who is the only hope."
Serving churches about a half-hour drive from each other, Scott and Searcy have preached around the world. They've worked on Baptist campuses where future pastors and missionaries are being trained. They've served in numerous leadership roles within the Southern Baptist Convention. Now, with a combined 80 years of experience between them, they, like Caleb in the Old Testament, have set their sights on the hill country, where statistics show the vast majority of people don't go to church.
Residents have welcomed Searcy and Scott, both of whom started their ministries in the Kentucky mountains as students at Clear Creek Baptist Bible College. They've logged lots of miles in the years since.
Scott's experience includes leading churches in Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia and serving on staff at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and at Brewton-Parker College in Mount Vernon, Ga.
Searcy has led churches in Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi and Virginia and served as a missionary in the South American country of Columbia. He also has been on staff at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisiana College, International Baptist Theological Seminary in Cali, Columbia and Clear Creek Baptist Bible College.
Church members typically refer to them as "Brother Tim" or "Brother C.B." Others call them "Pastor" or "Preacher." Few refer to them as "Dr. Scott" or "Dr. Searcy," though they hold doctoral degrees from the New Orleans Theological Seminary.
"They don't care if I have preached all over the earth or how much Greek or Hebrew I know," Scott said. "They don't care who I know in SBC life or who I can quote from personal conversations or the books I have read. They want me to preach 'thus saith the Lord' and be able to back it up with Scripture."
Since Searcy arrived at Allen three years ago, he has baptized more than 80 people. Scott came just over a year ago and has baptized 35 so far.
Neither want anyone to think it odd that they're spending the twilight of their careers in small-town Kentucky. Both say they're exactly where God wants them.
"I have done and been about everything a Southern Baptist preacher can do and be in a lifetime," Scott said. "I want to finish well for Jesus. If He wants me to finish here in the Appalachian Mountains as pastor, I will gladly do that, as long as He gives me strength. I must not let my life be about me. It must be about Jesus."
"I have followed the Lord's call to a lot more difficult places than this," Searcy said. "I love the people of the mountains. They are real in a fake world. I'm home."