By Bob Allen
Butch and Mary Ann Brown were nearly at a loss for words walking for the first time through their new home built by volunteers with the Kentucky Baptist Fellowship.
“Beautiful,” Butch, terminally ill and confined to a wheelchair, said of the three-bedroom house built in 10 days in place of the deteriorating 40-year-old double wide where he raised a family in Pine Knot, Ky.
Asked what she would say to each of the 110 volunteers from various churches across Kentucky who made it happen, Mary Ann said: “Thank you. God has blessed so much.”
Pine Knot is in McCreary County, with Owsley County one of two Kentucky counties among the 20 poorest counties in the country identified in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Together for Hope initiative aimed at reversing rural poverty.
Launched in 2001, Together for Hope is the Atlanta-based CBF’s rural-poverty ministry, involving long-term commitment to work with people in 20 of the nation’s poorest counties to affect change and break cycles of economic disparity. In addition to Appalachia, the program works in the Mississippi River Delta, Rio Grande Valley, Alabama and South Dakota.
Desiring seven years ago to involve Kentucky Baptists in the ministry, KBF associate Rhonda Abbot Blevins networked with local agencies to help families like the Browns who need a new house but can’t afford it. She had connections with Habitat for Humanity and took advantage of their experience to coordinate the first “Extreme Build” summer mission project.
For Joshua Speight, the current associate coordinator for missions, this was the fifth home-building blitz and the first to finish ahead of schedule. “It’s a very good feeling,” Speight said while waiting for a noon dedication ceremony Saturday, June 16.
“If we could put a sign up right now that said ‘Mission Accomplished’ that would be true,” beamed Steve Holm, general contractor and a member of St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
Because of his health, Butch had not been to the building site since demolition of the old house. Neither had Mary Ann, so when they pulled up for the noon dedication service, they were seeing the completed home on their property for the very first time.
“It was an emotional moment for all of us, full of tears, joy and love as we welcomed the Browns home and thanked God for them and the next chapter in their life,” Speight said.
The Browns occupied their new house valued at $120,000 after signing a $40,000 long-term, low-interest mortgage they will be required to pay. They qualified through Kentucky Highland’s Investment Corporation, an organization formed in 1968 to stimulate growth and create employment opportunities in a nine-county region of Southeastern Kentucky. In 2003 the service area expanded to 22 counties.
The Kentucky Fellowship, which put up $20,000 collected from member churches for the financing package, selected the family because the boost will benefit not only the couple but will be passed on to children and grandchildren also living in the area.
“We’re looking at changing generational poverty,” Speight said.
The KBF is the only charity operating in McCreary County focused on economic development through affordable housing. Kentucky Baptist Fellowship Coordinator John Lepper said the impact goes far beyond the seven families helped so far.
“I think the impact of it is in the area of hope,” Lepper said, “to build hope to change the future of a family and community.”
Lepper recalled one teenager from a past Extreme Build One who had been in trouble until working with KBF volunteers. At end of week he announced to his family he was going back to the regular high school. His siblings said, “You can’t. You always get in trouble,” but he insisted this time would be different.
“We’re not here to build a home,” Lepper said. “We’re here to build a new narrative.”
Lepper said Extreme Build, the Kentucky Fellowship’s premiere mission project, is a model of how the statewide Cooperative Baptist Fellowship operates – coordinating resources from various sources to accomplish what none could do on their own.
It also serves to reunite veteran volunteers from far-flung KBF churches who otherwise probably wouldn’t be acquainted. “We call it old-home week,” Speight said.
Charlie Gatton, 88, a veteran of all seven Extreme Builds and member of Buechel Park Baptist Church in Louisville, said he has seen the quality of work improve over the years.
“Every year we get a little more knowledge and a little more people,” said Gatton, who for the last three years has worked as a consultant with Kentucky Highland’s Investment Corporation. “I think every year they have been more professional. Everybody finds a niche.”
Saturday’s dedication ceremony on the Browns’ front porch included handing over keys to the house and gifts including a mailbox hand-painted by one of the more artistic volunteers and large-print Bibles signed by everyone who participated sometime during the week. Lepper led a dedication prayer, followed by everyone singing the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Holm summarized the philosophy behind Extreme Build by quoting a verse from the New Testament book of James. “We’re not saved by works,” he said. “We’re saved for works.”