FLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS IN WEST VIRGINIA
By Bruce Mundell
I had to smile watching Harry's face light up as he described how the Lord
had blessed him. What a difference a few months and some help had made.
It was now July-months after West Virginia's devastating flood-and Harry was
comfortable sitting in his "new" upstairs apartment. Very comfortable indeed,
compared to when we'd first met the previous November. He'd been living in a
space downstairs which looked like a warehouse-dusty and cluttered. I couldn't
even find a bed down there or anything that resembled a kitchen.
The May flood actually had intruded only six to 12 inches, but what an
intrusion it was. Harry had spent 30 years repairing electronic devices, and
his boxes of old computer parts and outdated electronic gizmos littered the
floors and walls. They even hung from the ceiling of this downstairs existence
that passed for his working and living quarters. The mud that rode in with the
water still covered the boxes, magazines and assorted stuff scattered about the
concrete floors. It was hard to tell in some places that you were walking
indoors. Furniture and appliances were musty and water-stained. It was a
Harry had dreamed of someday updating his two-story residence into a modern
apartment and workshop, maybe using the upstairs for living and the downstairs
for work. His vision receded as quickly as the river returned to the confines
of its usually capable banks. When I met him, Harry was depressed, disgusted
and almost angry at his circumstances. He had always been a self-sufficient man
but now realized there was no way his ailing 60-year-old body would ever be
able to clean and sort everything, let alone construct a livable domain out of
this mess that stared back at him. He didn't understand why he was placed in
such a predicament. But God understood.
On that first November day, little did either of us realize how time would
change not only Harry's living and working space but our lives as well. God had
brought us together.
It all started for me in August of 2002
when my son, Seth, and I took a mission trip to McDowell County in West
Virginia. The flooding back in May caught my attention for some reason. I read
a report calling this "the second '100-year flood' in less than a year."
Our job was to assess the damage. We were to come up with a list of families
who needed the help of volunteer church groups coming later.
Southwestern West Virginia is "coalfields country"-very rugged with
mountains pushed together tightly. Imagine dropping a whole bag of Hershey's
Kisses on the table so that all the points are up, then pushing them as tightly
together as you can and even joining some of the points together. Next, do as
the people in these parts do and give every peak a name. Then imagine valleys
with rivers, roads and railroad tracks snaking through, as well as an
occasional village nestled among them. Now you have a fairly accurate
topographical description of the area.
Every road leads to an ancient coal mine. These roads start out as narrow
two lanes, and-as you turn up one of the hundreds of hollows or draws-the road
becomes a narrow one lane, then gravel, finally becoming two strips with grass
or dirt in between, and eventually you end up on the peak of some specially
named mountain. As you reach the top and step out of your car, you can't help
but wonder how many tons of coal have been removed from the hundreds of feet of
soil that lay beneath your feet.
Most of the mines are gone now, not because they ran out of this fossil fuel
resource, but because the world found different ways to do what they did with
West Virginia coal. A few mines are still working, but the number is tiny in
comparison to 50 or 75 years ago. Seth and I went through a time warp somewhere
on the trip. I don't know if it was the tunnel that deposits you in West
Virginia on I-77 or if it was one of those switchback curves we wound around as
we climbed the rugged Hershey's Kiss mountains. But somehow we ended up in a
land that seemed 50 years older.
These villages were old coal company towns lined with cookie cutter houses
built in mining's heyday years. They shout of a once booming and productive
time that no longer exists.
Five inches of rain had attacked this area
of West Virginia in a mere six hours on the day of the flood. Those
funnel-shaped mountains directed the water down to overtake the once-peaceful
valleys. The unsuspecting roads, bridges, houses, businesses and railroads were
helpless to hold back the swelling waters. As we approached we saw lots of
evidence of the destruction wrought just a few weeks before our arrival. Roads
were in various stages of repair. Houses had lines etched on their walls as
evidence of how deep the waters had risen. Abandoned cars were piled up against
the river banks where they had washed downstream. Roads led to bridges that no
longer existed, and foundations sat mute where houses once stood. As we looked
about, we talked to many local people, and they were friendly and sincerely
appreciated our concern.
Meanwhile, something was happening inside of me. Amidst the destruction and
despair, I could feel a tug at my heart. I can't explain it, but God
Some of the families had simply taken the money from FEMA (Federal Emergency
Management Agency) and moved to higher ground. Others had a temporary FEMA
camping trailer moved in and shoe-horned their families in that while the
needed repairs were performed on their house. There were even some who surveyed
their losses, took what they could salvage, and left. McDowell County is the
poorest county in West Virginia with little obvious means of releasing that
These are mountain people, and you just don't step out of the mountains. The
mountains suck you in like quicksand. It's a different culture there. These
mountain people have roots that go deep and far back with years of history.
These roots are as fine as silk thread but extremely strong. They may stretch a
bit allowing you to gather what you need outside the mountains only to snap you
back firmly to where you belong. On occasion you'll find survivors "outside"
who have made their escape but then only with the help of friends, family or
dreams. They have to surgically cut around the roots, cutting away the history,
leaving it intact but no longer connected. Then, finding their thread of
escape, they hold onto that thread firmly-using it as a lifeline-as they pull
themselves out of the mountains to their dreams of success on the outside.
Ruby was a friendly lady, probably in her
sixties. She possessed a quality that reminded me of my grandma-or everybody's
grandma, I suspected. Her 40-year-old son with Downs Syndrome lived with her.
We were not in a position to provide physical help, but we did want to
encourage them. She had been a Christian for many years, and I reminded her
that God knew all about her situation.
After a short visit, I asked if we could pray for them before we left. A
tear welled up in her eye, and she said, "You know, when I got up this morning,
I was very discouraged, so I prayed, 'God, send me some encouragement today.'"
She looked me straight in the eye and said "…and you're it." That tug inside me
gave another jerk. I thought, if I don't accomplish anything else on this trip,
this was worth it. I still pray for Ruby.
We continued our survey assessment work for the next few days and developed
a list of cases that needed attention. We left the list there at the church
where we were staying. They could use it for future groups who were scheduled
to come. We packed up and headed for home, with me ever mindful of the gentle
but consistent tug at my heart.
The idea of going back and helping these people never left me. I searched
for a group to go back with but was having trouble locating one. Then one
evening during a prayer meeting at my church, when we were all praying, that
little tug reappeared and seemed to say, "Bruce, are you willing to go by
yourself?" I silently responded in the affirmative. Then it seemed to say
"…then go and invite anybody who wants to go with you to come along." A peace
joined in and seemed to grab on to that tug at my heart. The pressure eased. I
can't explain it, but God understood. And that was good enough for me.
I immediately started getting out the word to anyone who wanted to go.
Before I knew it, I had 12 to 15 people lined up. By this time it was slipping
past September and into October. The date was set for the middle of November. I
know, this is a questionable time to head to the mountains, but that was the
best I could do on the spur of the moment.
I began working the telephone, calling people to get some idea of how to
pull this off. I finally connected with the Flood Recovery Office there in
McDowell County. They had hundreds of cases listed in their files with money
available to complete many of them. God had a plan, and I had discovered my/our
place in it. Our team was shaping up as they responded to the tug each of them
By the time we were ready to leave, I was operating totally on faith. We
experienced many last minute adjustments-volunteers finalizing plans with some
deciding to go and others having to bow out. There were so many issues:
transportation, trip costs, tools needed, accessories, etc. We were on
auto-pilot, with God being the Pilot.
Tom was from the Flood Recovery Office that helped find those who needed our
help. His description of Harry prompted a little concern from me. "Harry is a
little stand-offish… almost a hermit type… a reclusive kind of fellow…
sometimes a little bit abrupt." I wasn't sure what we were getting into.
Circumstances found me Sunday afternoon with anxious volunteers who all
seemed to be looking to me for direction about what to do next. My plan was to
go to Harry's the next day, after I'd had a chance to check him out, but my
Sunday plans had fallen through.
"Do you think Harry could handle some of us on Sunday, unannounced?" I asked
"Well, let's see," was his reply, and off we went.
I drew up a picture of Harry in my mind as we disturbed his Sunday
afternoon, imposing on his space with a bunch of ready-and-raring-to-go
volunteers. But, hey, we were on auto-pilot, and I knew the Pilot was aware of
what was going on. I can't explain it, but God understood.
"Come right in, please. What can I do to help?" Was this really Harry the
hermit? Yes, it was him. He turned out to be very excited to greet us as we
arrived to help him.
Harry's place was quite a mess, but I was beginning to realize the actual
hand of God in all our planning. Harry's front door did not shut properly, and
there was no way to lock it. Also, the door to his future apartment upstairs
was held in place by one nail. Oh, by the way, one of our team members, Tom W,
hung doors for a living. How perfect was that!
Harry was in desperate need of an inside stairway. The only way he could get
into his new apartment was to go up the outside stairs and in the back door.
That sounded like a perfect job for Kevin, an engineer, who quickly sat down
with pencil and paper and proceeded to design the stairs. Tom Q, from the flood
recovery office, was a former pipe fitter and along with one of our many "I'll
do whatever you need" assistants, set out to install all new plumbing. It just
so happened that Jeff had just finished wiring his own house and was ready to
jump right in on the electricity. I can't explain how this all came together,
but God understood.
"I can hardly believe so many people are willing to leave their comfortable
homes and take a week of their time to come and help me," Harry said many
times. When asked if he had ever gone to church his reply was similar to the
stories we'd all heard time and time again. "They never made me feel welcome,"
or "They didn't live what they preached," you know the excuses. By the way, he
was no dummy nor was he ignorant; on the contrary, Harry is quite intelligent.
He actually worked with NASA during the "rocket to the moon" decade. Many times
when we needed some sort of a decision on how he wanted the wiring to run or
which way to construct a certain improvement in his apartment, he would reply,
"I've considered that and think maybe it would be best to do it this way," and
proceed to explain. He was often right; however, he was not opposed to a
different-and just as logical-solution.
Time after time I saw team members in discussion with him about spiritual
matters, and they would come to me afterwards and comment on how they could
sense the Lord was dealing with him.
I could sense it as well. Sunday and Monday evening we met together and
prayed for him. "God give us the right words at the right time."
Editor's note: Click
HERE for Week 2.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC