When I was sent to the coalfields of southern West Virginia, I figured I’d be overwhelmed with issues of poverty and unemployment. But my images of ministering to an impoverished community were challenged the first Sunday I arrived at Claypool United Methodist Church.
After the service, the couple who had invited me out to lunch, a retired mining supervisor and retired school teacher, drove me to the restaurant in their Jaguar. The reality, I learned, is that the coal industry is doing well in this part of the state and the mines are always looking for qualified miners. Mining is very dangerous work, but it pays pretty well.
My stereotypical view of Man, W.Va., wasn’t completely wrong. The local high school mascot is the “Hillbilly,” and, nine times out of 10, if you visit someone’s home for dinner, pinto beans and cornbread are on the menu. I also learned that in addition to coal, the area’s biggest attraction is four-wheeling. Tourists travel from all across the country to ride four-wheelers on the Hatfield and McCoy Trail System in the surrounding mountains. Even though I grew up in the hills of West Virginia, this place is more “country” than any place I had ever been.
Folks here quickly let me know that my predecessor—who had arrived as a seasoned local pastor and stayed for 13 years—had been “part of the family, and spent a lot of time on visitation.” (I later found out “Visitation” was the name of his four-wheeler). He also had a traditional pastor’s wife who baked the bread for every communion Sunday.
I am young, seminary-educated, and single. I don’t bake, don’t know anything about coal mining, can’t keep a garden, and don’t own a four-wheeler. In the eyes of people here, Morgantown, where I was raised and home of West Virginia University, is more like New England than West Virginia. Numerous congregants asked me if I felt like I could be comfortable in Man. They weren’t sure I was cut out for life so far from the city.
When I visited in the summer of 2007, the Pastor Parish Relations Committee asked a lot of questions about my “experience in the Holy Spirit.” Eventually I guessed what they wanted to know: “Are you comfortable with the manifestation of the spiritual gifts, especially, the gift of tongues?”
When I assured them that I was comfortable with the appropriate use of spiritual gifts in a worship setting, the tension faded and they told me about all the joys of “Methocostal” worship at Claypool.
This is a United Methodist church with Baptist theological undertones and Pentecostal worship practices. In addition to its distinctive worship style, Claypool is set apart by its magnificent music ministry. This congregation has birthed numerous professional musicians who excel at Southern gospel music. Every fifth Sunday people from all around the community come to hear and participate in our “sing service.”
But I can’t describe Claypool without introducing our lay leader. When I came into town, about every other person I met asked me, “Have you met Bill yet?” “What do you think about ol’ Bill?” “Man, you better watch out for Wild Bill … he’s a character! They used to call him ‘Wild Bill from Saw Mill’ and ‘The Coal Runnin’ Daddy.’”
As a boss in the mines, Bill Cline ran more coal than anyone around, and he was widely known as one of the area’s “wildest and craziest characters.” Even his wife says he was “mean as a snake, wild as a boar, and could drink like a fish, but when he put down the bottle and ‘got right,’ he became a good God fearin’ United Methodist.”
Though he did “get right,” Bill is still a wild card. No other man I know can call a woman “Big Dawg” and have it taken as a compliment. He has dedicated his life to Christ and is a committed servant to the gospel and the people of Claypool. Bill will preach, teach, mow the grass, or do about anything else asked of him except paint. He visits the sick, and often beats me to the hospital when an emergency arises. He always has an encouraging word to share with the congregation during our devotional times. It is amazing what the Holy Spirit can do.
Like many of the coal miners in our church, Bill does not have a formal college education, yet he has amazed me with his knowledge of the scriptures and the time he spends studying the Bible each day. We have several self-taught biblical scholars in the congregation, including Orval Lee, a retired mining electrician. When I first arrived in Man, Orval Lee took me in his truck to the state capital to pick up some furniture, and during the hour-and-a-half drive to Charleston, he outlined about five sermons.
Our congregation has extremely strong lay leadership representing a cross section of society. We are blessed to have four lay speakers, and one seminary graduate in the candidacy process. Our members include nurses, doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, miners, mining supervisors, teachers, and administrators, and most families are trying to protect their children from the dangers of the coal industry by encouraging them to pursue professional careers.
People in town call me “preacher,” and the congregation has nicknamed me their “little preacher” because at 30 years of age I am the youngest preacher they’ve ever had. They also call me the “Teachin’ Preacher” because of my emphasis on biblical exegesis. When I complete the ordination process in June of 2010, I will be the first fully ordained pastor to serve at Claypool.
My congregation includes the most giving and loving people I have ever known. They passionately worship God each time we gather, and they yearn for souls to be saved in the surrounding community.
Depending on the flow of the Holy Spirit, a worship service can turn on a dime into a healing service. In my short time here, miraculous healings have occurred after prayer and anointing with oil: a blind man’s cataracts were cured and his sight restored; cancerous masses have disappeared and doctors’ diagnoses have been reversed.
Our church community reminds me of the 1st-century church, where the Holy Spirit was made manifest through prophecy, tongues, wonders, and signs. At Claypool all these practices have occurred in accordance with Paul’s instruction for proper orderly worship. During a spiritual retreat, a guest speaker prophesied to the women of Claypool that God would anoint their new pastor. That same week, I received word telling me that I was assigned to Claypool. When I listened to that message on my cell phone, I felt a sensation like oil being poured on top of my head and the Holy Spirit burned within me.
We are an odd couple, but I count it a blessing that God has seen fit to join us on this journey in faith. I can’t wait to see where God will lead us in our remaining years together.
The Rev. Bryan C. Baker graduated with an M.Div. degree in 2007. He spent 10 years in youth ministry and is passionate about international mission work, particularly with orphans and child soldiers in Africa. Claypool is his first pastoral placement.