John Drescher

Thanks to Raleigh church group, Appalachian man reborn

Ben Jones and Christian Acree replace ceiling drywall at a home in Magoffin County, Ky.
Ben Jones and Christian Acree replace ceiling drywall at a home in Magoffin County, Ky. Photo courtesy Lisa Coster

Teddy Marshall was down. He’d been hit hard. He’s only 56 years old, but he has diabetes and in the past year suffered a heart attack and stroke.

Marshall, a truck driver and musician on the side, was unable to work. He kept to himself. The stroke slowed his speech. Music always had been a joy to him, but the joy was gone.

So was the music. Marshall set aside his guitar and silenced himself. He spent his summer days sitting on the front porch of his small, weathered house in Magoffin County, Ky., watching birds with his cat, Brother Love.

A few miles down a winding, two-lane road in eastern Kentucky, a church group from Raleigh arrived on a Sunday afternoon in June at Magoffin County High School. The gym and cafeteria would be their home for the week. Magoffin is small (population: 13,000) and poor (29 percent live in poverty). The volunteers from Raleigh would spend their days working to repair houses and trailers, then would return to the high school for the night.

Most of the volunteers were teens. They typically would work in teams of two adults and five students. For the week, they would be part of Appalachia Service Project, a home-repair ministry started in 1969 by a Methodist minister. The project operates 30 centers in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina.

For seven weeks this summer, different volunteer groups from across the country will arrive at Magoffin High and the other centers for a week. During the course of a summer, as a different crew arrives each Monday, a house can be transformed. Almost all of the groups are from churches. This summer, 31 Triangle churches will send 1,200 volunteers to work with Appalachia Service Project. They’ll come from Apex, Cary, Chapel Hill, Clayton, Durham, Holly Springs, Raleigh and Zebulon.

New priorities

Each center is run by four college students. They are in charge. They connect the volunteers with the residents. They coach the volunteers on how to do the work at the houses and trailers. They build support in the community for Appalachia Service Project. They work from dawn till midnight and get a day off every two weeks.

Carter Patton, 21, is one of the center leaders in Magoffin. He will be a senior at the University of Georgia, where he is studying engineering, and wears his red-and-black UGa cap proudly and often. He grew up working in his family’s automotive body shop in Athens, Ga. “I’ve been around people who’ve been in need but never with homes falling apart,” he told me.

Some locals consider the center leaders and volunteers outsiders and don’t welcome them. But that is rare. Residents want the help. More than 200 people applied for help this summer in Magoffin, but only 15 to 20 projects could be tackled.

“It’s been everything — and more —of what I hoped for,” Patton said. He likes venturing outside his middle-class comfort zone and into the deep relationships he has established with the residents. “When you step into their world, it can be a different experience,” he said.

Kiley Coster of Raleigh is one of the center leaders in Lincoln County, West Virginia. Coster, 19, graduated from Sanderson High School in 2014 and will be a sophomore at Appalachian State. She went on four Appalachian Service Project trips as a teen. “These trips changed my perspective on life and altered my priorities,” she wrote in an email.

This summer, Coster has been inspired by one of her residents, a 79-year-old woman whose husband has Alzheimer’s disease. The woman has tried to cover the holes in her bathroom floor. Coster said the woman “has continually astounded me with her positivity, drive and infectious spirit about living life to the fullest and making the best out of every situation.”

Coster grew up in a nice North Raleigh neighborhood that now seems far away. “Life for our families is so much about the people you are with rather than the place you live or the things you have,” she wrote. “Their world is different than mine back home simply because the culture here is very different. People here are so open and willing to let you into their life. ... Life is different here than in Raleigh but I have found that life in Lincoln exists without many of the distractions that are all around us in Raleigh.”

Her work, she said, is a relationship ministry with construction on the side.

Loud and joyous

Teddy Marshall is short, friendly and approachable. While he was sitting on his front porch in June watching the birds, he fell into conversation with one of the volunteers, a Raleigh man.

I like my church music loud and joyous, Marshall said.

I know a minister who likes church music that way, the man said. And she’s on this trip with us.

She? Marshall said. Some people have a problem with a woman minister. But I don’t.

Would you like to meet her? the man said.

Yes, Marshall said.

The next day, the Rev. LuAnn Charlton, associate pastor at Hayes Barton United Methodist Church in Raleigh, visited Marshall at his home. What followed was providential alchemy. “It took my breath away,” Charlton would say later to her congregation.

Charlton and the adults and teens working on Marshall’s home gathered in his small kitchen with him and his companion, Sylvia. Someone asked him if he would play guitar and sing. Marshall had not done either in six months. It was perhaps a mildly impertinent question.

But he said yes. He played and sang “Put Your Hand in the Hand;” his own song, “Salvation Addiction,” and “Amazing Grace.” There was dancing and jubilation. Then Marshall handed his prized guitar to one of the teenage boys to play and the group sang for Marshall. He wept. He felt a new purpose. He would sing these songs again.

Several of the teens emailed Charlton that they would never forget what unfolded in the kitchen and were grateful for the moment. One wrote, “I had one of the best days of my life. I truly felt the presence of God.”

Marshall was so moved that the following night, he got a friend to drive him to the high school cafeteria, so he could play and sing with some of the teens for the entire group. Charlton held the microphone as Marshall sang.

A week later, I reached Marshall by phone. The last year had been difficult, he said. He was about to give up. “Those young people put the music back in my heart,” he told me. “I felt free. Words cannot express it. I felt the anointing again.” He felt reborn. He had risen. The group from Raleigh, he said, will always be imprinted on his heart.