by Karen Aldridge
As I drove along the highway leading into the Appalachian Mountains of southeastern Kentucky, the rain began to dissipate. It had poured since I started my journey and an ice storm was expected. I thanked God for keeping me a few miles ahead of it. I was on my way to deliver Christmas presents and meals to the families of Backpack Mission kids, a ministry supported by my Sunday school class. I didn’t want an ice storm to get in my way.
Our group filled two vans. I drove the second van, following Diane, the founder of Backpack Mission Ministries. We had a common bond—a calling to be a spiritual lifeline to the people of Appalachia.
An hour from our destination, we followed a school bus on the highway. When it stopped, I looked to the left and saw a rusted trailer sitting on the side of a mountain. A few stripped cars surrounded the trailer. The tilted skeleton of a woodshed stood near the top of the driveway. I would have thought the trailer was abandoned were it not for the smoke rising from a metal pipe chimney. I wondered who lived there. What was their story? Did they know Jesus?
Two small boys, not much bigger than my sons, hopped out of the bus, crossed the highway, and walked up the muddy driveway toward the trailer. My heart sank. These two little boys lived there. I thought, Wouldn’t it just make their Christmas if I pulled over with my carload full of presents and gave some to them? Then I felt as if God were saying, “No, Karen, I have another destination for these presents.” I drove on.
Deeper in the mountains, the lush forest surrounded me on every side. Creeks roared down the mountains. Even through the closed windows I could hear the sound of rushing water. I felt hidden from a world gone mad, and I fantasized about pulling over, getting out, and disappearing into God’s artistic creation. If there is a paradise on earth, this must be it, I mused.
The Depression of a Region
Just around a mountain bend, a visual irony brought me face-to-face with the reason for the depression of this region, the second poorest in our nation. The backside of a mountain was stripped clean of its greenery, its trees, and its wildlife, leaving behind cutout chunks of earth covered with gravel and coal mining equipment. When this mountain is emptied of its coal, as many others have been, the coal company will move out leaving more without jobs and continuing the cycle of poverty. And, as has been the case for four generations, no other industry will move in to make up for its absence.
Driving on, I looked past the refuse lining the roadways and piled around the tiny and neglected houses, the natural paradise forming a backdrop for the despondency and hopelessness that prevails.
Delivering Christmas Blessings
Through Backpack Mission Ministries we have been feeding the children in this area for five years—children who, without the backpacks we deliver to them every Friday, would have little or no food each weekend. They would return to school Monday morning starving and hoarding uneaten scraps left on their classmates’ food trays. Yes, severe poverty still exists in the United States of America.
Feeding these hungry children has allowed us to begin developing relationships with their families. As I delivered Christmas presents and meals to them, every family had a story to tell.
There was the physically and mentally disabled mother of two who wanted to overcome her illiteracy so she could read her Bible. She wanted healing for her young daughter who had endured horrid abuse at the hands of her father.
A widow and great-grandmother of 16 wanted peace for her family. A large cut above her eye reflected a tragic story: two of her sons were engaged in a vicious knife fight and inadvertently cut her when she stepped between them to keep one from killing the other. One was still clinging to life in the hospital.
A single father was raising his four children following the brutal murder of his wife two years ago. A single mother, filled with despair, cried uncontrollably as we told her about Jesus. Her kitchen, devoid of any appliances and containing only a single makeshift counter, had no flooring. A kitten hopped in and out of a large hole in the damp subfloor. I listened to their stories, shared Jesus’ love, and prayed with them.
The Emotional Journey Home
As I left the last house and climbed into my van, the clouds burst open, releasing rain that accompanied me throughout my 400-mile journey home.
I walked into my house and felt an intense disconnect from the world I knew just two days before. I looked at my Christmas tree nestled in a sea of presents. My two young boys had already been tucked in for the night; I crawled in between them. It suddenly didn’t feel right having so much when those to whom God sent me had so little.
“Why me?” I asked God. “I’m nobody. I don’t deserve to have any more than any of those people.” I sensed his message clearly: “These are children I love. I bless you because I know you will feed them, love them, share their story, and use what I give you to reflect the light of Jesus. Some are poor, and some are not poor so they can help the poor—that’s why I’ve chosen you.”
My raw emotions began to mix with joy and understanding. I pulled my sleeping boys close to me, saw the faces of the children in Appalachia, and I began to cry.
Karen Aldridge is a freelance writer in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
Backpack Mission Ministries
Backpack Mission Ministries began feeding 68 children in the fall of 2006. The ministry currently feeds more than 600 children in more than 20 public schools in the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky.
Visit www.backpackmission.com for more information on this ministry.