A week of service with the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center
By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor
In July, I had the opportunity to help chaperone a volunteer mission trip to eastern Kentucky. The experience of serving in one of America’s poorest areas, alongside the dedicated volunteers and staff at the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center, was profound. For that reason, I’m hoping the readers of The Catholic Sun will permit me a detour from my regular reporting to share a more personal story about my trip, here in this issue dedicated to “Growing in the Spirit.”
Highways and hollers
Early on the morning of July 8, in the parking lot of Immaculate Conception Church in Fayetteville, 14 high schoolers and four chaperones squeezed themselves, their luggage and enough food for a week into two 12-passenger vans. We set off for the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center (FBAMC) in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, the heart of central Appalachia. In this rural, isolated region where poverty, joblessness, homelessness and addiction are constant struggles, the FBAMC provides assistance to families and individuals in need. Founded by the incomparable Father Ralph Beiting, still active as its leader at 88, and an outreach ministry of the Diocese of Lexington, FBAMC operates food pantries, thrift stores, home repair programs, transitional housing services, community programs and much more.
We pulled into Inez, KY, around 2:30 a.m. (What should have been a long 11-hour drive turned into a marathon of about 19 hours, thanks to a blown tire and the hours-long hunt for a replacement van 45 miles into the trip.) In the glow of streetlights, we passed vacant storefronts and still-bright restaurants, dilapidated trailers and newly constructed homes. Narrow side streets branched off the main road and climbed into rocky hills topped by thick foliage. Around a bend, St. Stephen’s Center, our home for the week, appeared. The rambling, white-sided structure houses a FBAMC thrift shop and a chapel on the first floor; volunteer quarters, furnished with comfy old couches and cleverly repurposed materials, are on the second floor. I have never been so happy to see a bed in my life.
After some much-needed shut-eye, volunteers coordinator Cindy Capria arrived to offer our group an orientation. Cindy had been a visiting volunteer for five years before coming to the FBAMC as a fulltime volunteer in 2011, she explained. In that time, she’d had the privilege of working with many poor families in the region. She put the challenges these families face in real terms: Jobs are few and far between. Big families share small homes where things like bed sheets may be a luxury. Many homes are heated with coal stoves and devastating house fires are common. The problem is compounded because the homes don’t have smoke detectors.
You’re here to help Father Beiting continue the spiritual and physical work he’s done in the region for more than 60 years, Cindy continued. And while you’re here, you are representing him and the Catholic Church.
Catholics are a rarity in this part of the world. Around 10 percent of Kentucky’s population is Catholic and in Martin County, where we were, less than 1 percent of the population is Catholic; St. Jude Church in neighboring Lawrence County has fewer than 100 members. Many people in the region are Christian but there’s a history of prejudice against Catholics; for six decades Father Beiting has overcome that prejudice and evangelized through his ministry. We would be especially welcome in the community because we were working with his organization, Cindy told us, but we should be mindful of setting a good example. “And remember to smile!” she said.
Learning from the little ones
With this introduction fresh in our minds and big smiles on our faces, we headed to the local community center to begin our assignment for the week— staffing the FBAMC’s free, ecumenical vacation Bible school.
Some 40 children, ages 3 to 15, took part in the weeklong camp. I was assigned to work with the 6- to 8-year-old class, a prospect that both thrilled and terrified me. I love kids, but I have none of my own yet and my little brother hasn’t been six in about 20 years. And I kept thinking about Father Beiting’s memoir, Called to the Mountains, in which he wrote about the many challenges children in Appalachia face. Father Beiting also wrote, however, that “there is no substitute in the life of a child for the sincere love of a concerned adult,” so I determined I would just do my best to be a friendly, positive, encouraging presence for the children.
In the end that was easy, because I fell totally and completely head-over-heels in love with them. Their boundless energy, their smiles, their charming drawls were just irresistible. Over sandwiches in the lunchroom and badminton games in the gym, I was treated to stories of their new baby sisters and their beloved pet turtles, their favorite subjects in school and their best moves in gymnastics class. I was overwhelmed by their ability to spontaneously give and receive affection; countless times I felt a skinny little arm snake around my waist and squeeze, and our group didn’t move an inch without someone wanting to hold my hand or get a piggyback ride. So it was only natural that when some stories left me without the right words— like when tears were shed over a family member in jail or when I heard about caring for a sick parent — hugs became our shared language.
Though I was supposed to be the “teacher,” the kids were the ones doling out the Gospel lessons. Zach, lanky, tan and a bundle of energy, gave away the stickers he earned in Bible class because he wanted all of his classmates to feel special. Older kids intervened when the youngsters tussled over the prized blue ball during free time in the gym, making sure everyone got a turn. Sonya and Angel, whose home had been damaged by a fallen tree, didn’t ask for prayers for themselves but for the sick dog down the road. And then there was Briana.
“Look what I brought,” she said to me one morning, swinging her long brown braid over her shoulder. She opened her little palm to show me a few coins; I think it was a quarter and two dimes. “I brought them from my piggybank to give to Father for his project,” she explained. The day before, Father Beiting had spoken to the kids about a greenhouse he was trying to raise money to buy, so that the FBAMC could provide a few jobs and fresh produce for the community.
I gave her the biggest hug ever.
The man behind the mission
Each afternoon at 4:30 p.m. Father Beiting came to celebrate Mass in the chapel at St. Stephen’s Center. I have to admit, after chasing kids around all day, all I wanted to do was collapse into bed. But our first Mass with Father Beiting was so moving, so energizing, the celebrations became highlights of my days.
The chapel is cozy, with just enough room for a few rows of pews and the altar; soft light filters in through stained glass windows donated from a closed church. Here, everyone participates in the Mass, reading or singing or distributing Communion. It’s an intimate, communal celebration.
Without fail, Father Beiting preached a homily that hit me right between the eyes. Each day he challenged us to really open ourselves up to God, to offer ourselves in His service. “Are you asking God what He wants your vocation to be?” he asked us. “Are you making Him a part of your life? Are you thanking Him? Apologizing for the things you’ve done wrong? Why are you here? What are you going to do with this experience when you get home?” Jesus, now I know why I’ve been struggling to hear your answers lately, I thought one afternoon. I’ve been asking all the wrong questions.
The messages were powerful, but the messenger perhaps even more so. Father Beiting, 88, is a true force of nature. Time and a car accident several years ago have taken their toll on his eyesight, hearing and mobility, but he keeps up a schedule that exhausts me to even think about. A child of the Depression, he first came to Appalachia from his native northern Kentucky as a seminarian in 1946. The poverty and need he witnessed stayed with him, and when he was assigned pastor in the region in 1950, he knew he had found his true mission in life. In the years since, he has had an immeasurable impact on the area. He founded the interdenominational Christian Appalachian Project in 1964, which continues to serve children, families and the elderly in the region today. He’s continued his ministry with the FBAMC, working, as he says, help the people of Appalachia help themselves and to bring them the love of Jesus. He is a known and loved fixture in the community.
We saw this for ourselves one night when we accompanied Father Beiting to his twice-weekly street preaching. He’s been taking his pulpit to the streets since his earliest days in Appalachia; he takes the command to go forth and preach the Gospel very seriously. We arrived at a nearby low-income neighborhood of brick homes with small, neat lawns in front. As we set up Father’s microphones and speakers and shuffled through our song sheets (we volunteers sang as The Mountain Troubadours), a man approached Father.
“You don’t know me, Father, but I know you. I just want to thank you for all the work you’ve done,” he said. He then sat in a folding chair on his lawn and listened as Father preached for an hour about “my best friend and yours, Jesus Christ.” At one point, a towheaded boy shuffled up and sat on the curb to listen, too.
The audience might have been small, but the effect on me was huge. Father Beiting, with his thick shock of white hair, preached so passionately and movingly, undeterred by the lack of visible listeners because he knew there were families behind the doors who might hear him and his message. Sitting on a blanket in the fading light, I was even more impressed when the car battery powering his sound system quit before he did.
Moments that matter
Each night, our group curled up on couches and chairs in the common room to share reflections on the day. One by one, each of us would describe seeing the face of Christ in a person or situation. We talked about Father Beiting and his great love for the people of Appalachia. We reflected on the inspiring examples of the many volunteers and staff at the FBAMC who are so committed to serving the community. We shared stories of seeing a little boy befriend a loner in the gym or of working to clear the debris around Sonya and Angel’s home. These quiet moments focused us on our mission and helped us to see the real presence of Christ, at work all around us.
We closed reflection by praying the Rosary together. Every night, I offered my prayers in thanks. Thanks for being able to contribute, in a small way, to the FBAMC’s work, for being introduced to amazing people putting their faith into action, for meeting the kind, hardworking people in the community, and for being reminded that loving God and neighbor is the very core of the Catholic faith.
I’m still offering those prayers of thanks every day.
To learn more about the Father Beiting Appalachian Mission Center, visit www.fbamc-ky.org or call
I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to Father Ralph Beiting, Cindy and Dominic Capria, Rosemary and Lenny Murray and all the staff and children at the FBAMC for a life-changing week. I’d also like to thank our fearless leader Kelly Colangelo, my fellow chaperones Bill Burns and Dr. Lynn Satterly, my fellow volunteers Natalie, Brenna, Sabrina, Hannah, Keenan, Carolina, Alex, Matt, Billy, Isaiah, Dan, Danny, Jack and Tristan, and the entire Immaculate Conception community for allowing me to be a part of this trip.