Appalachian church offers visitors a taste of local worship

Posted August 3, 2009 5:51 p.m. EDT

Josh Stillman is spending his summer with the Appalachia Service Project. He files this report from Whitesville, West Virginia.

One day every week ASP staffs treat their volunteers to something called “culture night,” an evening designed to expose volunteers to traditional Appalachian culture. This often takes the form of speakers from coal mines or performances by a local bluegrass band.

I sought out, fruitlessly, one of these options. The coal mines I contacted weren’t especially receptive to the idea of allowing 60 high-schoolers wandering around inside. I did land a bluegrass band, but they were only available to play for two of our eight weeks. That left six weeks with no hope of a normal culture night.

Our luck turned when halfway through set-up week we received a call from Gary Williams, the pastor of a nearby church called New Life Assembly. After hearing of our presence in the county, they wanted to open their doors to us and invite us to their worship service on Wednesday nights. How convenient. Unbeknownst to them, their hospitality had spared the youth from our own stab at local culture: playing in the river out back (this was, briefly, a serious consideration). It’s funny how these things work sometime. Culture night fell right into our lap and was only two minutes down the road.

I’ll do my best to give a general picture of the experience that is New Life Assembly. The building itself seats around 80 and feels even more intimate due to the low ceilings. The regular congregation consists of around 10 community members; we came and added 60 or 70 complete strangers from all over the country. The praise band – guitar, piano, drums, and six vocalists – fills the first half hour. But here I’ve got to do them justice: they erupt. Their amps are at full volume. They belt out their music, a mix of traditional hymns and contemporary Christian rock, with enough passion for an arena. Though they’re the first to acknowledge their occasional musical shortcomings, they more than compensate with raw intensity. After five or six songs, filled with extended interludes of hushed, heartfelt spoken praise, we in the audience are left dizzy and breathless, stunned at having borne witness to such elevation. That, readers, is praise and worship.

It’s a tough act to follow. Yet Gary slides up to the podium next and manages somehow to impress us even more. Gary is not a large man, no more than 5 feet 7 inches. He works full-time in one of the local coal mines. But listen to him preach the Word just once and I challenge you to tell me that man does not have another calling. It’s as though he tumbled headfirst from the womb into a pulpit, one hand raised high and the other thumping the binding  of a King James Bible. He doesn’t just speak, he delivers. The podium is a minor point of reference; he spends most of the sermon dashing through the pews, shaking hands, spewing his words at breakneck speed to an utterly spellbound congregation. The veins pop from his neck and he pours sweat and hardly breathes and I swear I could not once take my eyes off of him. He is pure fire and brimstone, and when he says he loves God, I believe him.

We all still struggle with doubt. It is unsettling, but skepticism is waging a turf war on my once resolute faith. How can that be, when I have so much? Some members of Gary’s congregation are themselves applicants for our home repair services, living well below the poverty line. Still their faith is unwavering. I have never seen a group of people so firm in their belief in a higher power. In the face of substandard living conditions, domestic strife, and endless medical issues, they remain convinced that God will prevail.

In a word, going to New Life has been refreshing. I can’t say whether or not Gary and his team won any converts this summer, but I can say that we and our volunteers left that building every night smiling. We got our culture and then some.