Benevolence, Meth & Slavery (Two Rural Church Stories)

Goodbye Blue Sky

Last week, I read a post and some comments on a Facebook site for Small Church pastors. It’s a great site, monitored with a firm, but loving hand so the conversations stay helpful, not argumentative.

When I read a post by a Small Church pastor’s wife, followed by a comment from a Small Church pastor, I knew this was something others needed to read.

Since the comments were on a closed site (for good reasons) I asked for, and received permission to reprint what they wrote here.

I wish I could give them full credit for what they’ve written. But, because of the nature of their stories, they need to remain anonymous.

– Karl Vaters

Say Goodbye to Mayberry

People have a vision of pastoring in rural America that is far removed from reality. Quiet streets, church bells wafting, autumn leaves falling, everyone knowing and trusting their neighbors. In most of rural America that has long ago ceased to be – if it ever was that way to begin with.

Few people know the gritty reality of rural America like those who pastor small town churches. They usually live at or below the level of poverty as their neighbors, using what little resources they have to try to fill a need that seems like it will never end.

I’m using two of their stories in today’s post. They’re not offering answers. They’re bluntly describing their reality. 

We need to hear stories like this so we can have our eyes open to the real needs. It can also help us appreciate the enormous sacrifice that our fellow pastors and their families make in the often overlooked parts of the country that I, and most of my readers, call home.

(This post is exclusive to I also posted at Pivot today. After you’ve read this post, scroll back here, then click over and read The Surprising, Guilt-Free Reason 80% of Churches Don’t Break the 200 Barrier. But keep reading here first. You’ll be glad you did.)

Quandary…Seeing the Need (By a Pastor’s Wife)

We minister in rural Appalachia. In one of the poorest counties in the U.S.

People are poor. Out of work. The majority of the children receive free lunch at school.

Because of the extreme poverty, we are overrun with benevolence-type ministries and services. Work teams are always pouring in to do projects. Many are very helpful, but some only enable the laziness of those they are trying to help. (Unintentionally of course)

Food, clothing, school supplies – any kind of giveaway is expected. In fact, the people in our community have become critical and picky about what giveaways they attend. Word on the street is, “XYZ’s giveaway is better – they’re giving name brand shoes.” Some giveaways aren’t even attended well at all.

Most of the giveaway and freebies come from those soliciting donations from churches, businesses and people out of state.

This overload of benevolence has created a severe entitlement mentality in our area. Freebies are expected, more than they are appreciated. (Don’t get me wrong, there are folks who are in real need, and are really grateful). Because of the closure or reduction of many main employers, jobs are hard to come by.

So here’s the quandary. What is the need of my area?

Poverty? Yes. But as explained, we’re overloaded with benevolence to the point where it doesn’t really have an affect like it may elsewhere.

What we really need is a spiritual revival. An awakening where people are energized and motivated to be the best they can be. To learn to spend their money wisely and not waste it. The local news stations have reported on people taking their Food Stamp money and using it to purchase cases of pop, which they turn around and sell to buy cigarettes, liquor or drugs.

People need their dignity back.

People need training for jobs. They need jobs to be trained for!

People need to have a work ethic instilled – trust in God and themselves rather than the government.

People need release from the bondage of drugs and sexual immorality.

People need to take responsibility to raise their immediate families rather than leaving that up to extended family.

People need to have their minds transformed to think rightly about their lives and their world.

So, how does the church meet those real needs? Especially small churches with few people and little resources?

We need much more than handouts. We need an awakening.

My husband heard a story (and there are many) of a dear pastor that has been in this area 50+ years. He’s known by everyone. And everyone loves and respects him. (It makes me smile just writing about him.) He told a story of taking a big bag of potatoes to a family that was hungry. When he returned a couple of days later to check on them, the potatoes had been thrown out in the yard, just discarded. He was astonished. This family was supposed to be hungry. He asked why they had wasted this food. They said they didn’t want to go through the trouble of cooking them. This is the mentality.

Please, not everyone is like this. Truly. But it is pervasive. The key is individuality I believe – the more I mull over this in my mind, the more it seems to take root. Like the story of “Alex” I posted the other day. An individual. His family is poor. Very poor. But just yesterday Alex called to say his dad had a huge box of corn, a watermelon and some cantaloupes from their garden they wanted to give to us. (Smile emoticon.)

Hmmmm….gonna have to pray and pursue this….

Among many other comments, this post received the following story in response.


Slavery In an American Town (By a Pastor)

Your original post reminded me of a similar situation that happened to me.

There was a family in my town that obviously needed money for school clothes, so the church gave them $200 to buy school clothes. Instead, the family went to every store in the area and bought cough syrup.

Because of this we decided to give actual clothing and groceries, instead of cash, to the next family that came. They also sold the groceries and clothing to buy cough syrup.

The local sheriff explained to me that we were inadvertently helping those people manufacture meth.

A week later one of the daughters of the second family was sold as a slave to another couple a county over. We tried to have the mom and grandmom arrested, but the police said they weren’t able to find them, since they were transients. The grandmother’s family ended up vandalizing my house, my car, and threatening to kill us.

When I found them, I asked if I could pray for them and help them find real help to get off the drugs and the street. I found the girl they had sold chained outside in her underwear to a tree. These people had moved in, knowing there was a girl sold into slavery and tied to a tree.

They slammed the door in my face and I called the sheriff over.

I have been through a dozen experiences like this. There is such a cultural divide that many times our efforts to love end up hurting.

By the way, the girl went into foster care but was later returned to the same family who had nine kids living in there.


No Easy Answers

The mind reels at stories like this. But they are all too frequent. And they are what many pastors face on a regular basis. Needs that seem impossible – that are impossible without God’s intervention.

That’s why I’m so grateful for ministries like our friends at Rural Compassion. And I’m glad that there are Facebook sites where pastors can help each other. (Click here if you would like to ask Dave Jacobs to be added to his Small Church Pastor Facebook group where this conversation started.)

I want this website to be a place where these kinds of stories can get a wider hearing. So when I hear them I will pass them on to you (after confirming them, of course). For three reasons:

  1. To expose the reality of how challenging Small Church ministry can be.
  2. To give us a chance to pray for each other.
  3. To start a conversation that might lead to some answers.

Thanks for coming along on this ride with us.


So what do you think? Do you have similar experiences to share? Some help to offer?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

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13 thoughts on “Benevolence, Meth & Slavery (Two Rural Church Stories)”

  1. Wow. So important that someone is saying these things out loud. And brave, too, considering the possible blowback (i.e., story #2). What are some of the signs that we might be off-track in “helping” the poor in our own areas (or others, such as the mission trips to reservations, Mexico, Central America and other places). Do we just rush in and do our thing so we can feel good about ourselves, or are we actually making a positive difference in the lives of others? Still feeling ambivalent about my own missions trip and outreaches to the homeless, I guess. But these are things to ponder!

    1. Thanks, Chris. Worth pondering, for sure. Our church does short-term missions trips, too. And we took a serious look at the value of them. The key, we discovered, was to work with the permanent on-the-ground missionaries and ministries. If we make sure we’re serving them, the trip is always worthwhile.

  2. I second Chris’s thanks for saying these things out loud. I am in Wilson County, Kansas, and the stories told in both of those posts are just like things I see every day. I want a liberation theology for poor rural whites. Urban poverty is bad (I also lived in Kansas City for ten years) but rural poverty is so much worse because it is such a tiny percentage of the overall population that it is mostly ignored.

  3. Great article Karl, and so needed. As you know I just answered the call to be the pastor of a small church in Iowa. I have been here for a little over two weeks now, and while I have not gotten deep enough to see the dark “underbelly” that exists here, I am sure that it no doubt does.

    I am reminded of a trip that I took a group of youth on several years ago to the Appalachian mountains in KY. It was a good trip all in all just because of the exposure to the culture that the kids had to be immersed in. But we did see so many of the things that this article talks about in regards to the entitlement mentality. Most definitely a complex and frustrating thing to wade through when trying to determine how to “really” help people meet needs while not empowering that mentality.

  4. reat post, disturbing but true. I pastored churches in Mayberry or other fictional small towns, but the pain and the hurt were almost as great. How to help these pastors, that is the question. We focus so often on meeting the needs of whatever the current generation is called, and focusing our efforts on upper middle class areas and forget about the struggles and the pain that small churches deal with in their communities.

    1. That’s true, Charley. The local pastors of outreaching churches have the best feel for the needs. Working with and supporting them is the key. But often they don’t even know how. It’s just that tough sometimes.

  5. I believe I am in that group on facebook (jacobs small church pastor group?), and I really want to read this whole threat, but I cannot find it. Any chance you can point me towards it?

    1. That page has had a lot of activity since this post came out, so it’s been buried way down the page. Since it’s a closed group, I won’t put the URL here, but I’ll email or PM it to you.

  6. As with others, glad to see this posted. Thanks Karl.
    When I pastored in the SoCal high desert in the 80’s, I found out the area was a meth-lab mecca. These are things most people have no clue about or don’t want to know.
    The disdainful treatment of children and young adults is always hard to accept. My daughter works in social work and it is overwhelming. I am reminded of Malachi 4:6. Perhaps we are experiencing a long overdue curse for what we have tolerated in the US for so long.

    btw, is it not possible to post comments on the new Pivot blog?

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad to shine a light on situations that have been overlooked for too long.

      As to the comments, has turned of all comments on all their sites. The nastiness that some people spew finally got to be more than they wanted to deal with. Even though they were using programs to filter them out, too many got through and dominated the conversation. I’ll write a post here alerting people to that soon.

      So now, the only ways to comment on my posts (which I love doing!) is here, or on my Facebook page or Twitter feed.

  7. A clarificationMy understanding is that cough syrup is actually used to get high but not on “meth” as in crystal methamphetamines, but on dextromethorphan which is a cough suppressant. It is a growing trend and is even more dangerous for young people because they can buy it legally.
    Another otc cold medicine – pseudoephedrine – is a decongestant and can be used to “cook” crystal meth.

  8. Just thought I should share this: In the quest to dig into this deeper, because it is something that has been in my heart for a long long time. With Karl’s assistance, I found this book that looks to be something promising to bring to this study:

    Like I said, this is something that I have been pondering for some time. In the past I have been involved in Church projects such as food pantry’s and community gardens, all with the express purpose to serve just for the opportunity to serve. Nothing more nothing less. More often than not, I have come across so many people who live a life of entitlement that exists more pervasive in their hearts that it does in the heart of the “trust-fund” kid who has everything handed to them. I’ve become, almost. irreparably, cynical about any and all such efforts and have prayed for a way to get through it. Frankly, it has hurt my own faith because somewhere in my mind I am convinced that when we reach out and help in that way, that God steps in and changes people…and frankly, I am just not seeing it. So it causes doubts in my own heart, making me feel as if God really isn’t there and that we are just making this all up. Very Frustrating at times to feel that empty of your own faith.

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