A Dream Comes True in Appalachia

God’s Word Brings New Life in Coal Mining Country

Railroad in Logan County, West Virginia. Photo by Chris Leaman
Railroad in Logan County, West Virginia. Photo by Chris Leaman

Pastor Michael C. Hartwell is a jolly, talkative man who likes to tell funny stories, do impersonations and preach the Scriptures to the broken and needy who live in the heart of Appalachia in southern West Virginia. A former coal miner, he was given a copy of the New Testament one day while he was deep in the bowels of the earth. He read Jesus' words and they immediately became so real to him that he made a decision to follow Christ. Later, he was called to the ministry to work among the miners there in Logan County.

In the wake of his first wife's death, Pastor Michael Hartwell looked for a way to fulfill her life's dream. Her desire was to create a facility that would serve as a beacon of Christian compassion and truth among the poor and needy in Appalachia. Fueled by this wish, he founded the aptly-named Appalachian Dream Center, a 40,000-square-foot food and clothing distribution center in Logan County, donated by the A. T. Massey Coal Company. The Center provides thousands of hot meals a month (and delivers food to shut-ins), and finds housing for those families who have lost their possessions during natural disasters. In essence, the Dream Center was everything Hartwell's late wife had envisioned — it hosted regular Sunday school, worship nights and a counseling center. But something was missing: an effective Scripture outreach program.

Now remarried, Hartwell and his new wife did not have the resources to impact the surrounding communities for Christ with any success. That is until the American Bible Society began its Bread Today™ program, providing outreach Bibles and study tools to the Dream Center in December of 2008. “I've been praying for thirty-some years, ‘I need some tools, I need some backing, I need a foundation that is reputable,'” stated Pastor Hartwell. “The American Bible Society's Bibles have proven to be this very foundation.”

Pastor Michael C. Hartwell and Malcolm Floyd Jr. head up the ministry of the Appalachian Dream Center. Photo by Chris Leaman
Pastor Michael C. Hartwell and Malcolm Floyd Jr. head up the ministry of the Appalachian Dream Center. Photo by Chris Leaman

Spreading the Word of God effectively is a tricky thing in Logan County. A deep schism is present in the church — an unspoken rift between old and new. Members of the older generation in the region are attached to the King James Bible. However, the younger set struggles to grasp the language of the KJV, resulting in a general indifference toward faith and Scripture.

As director of the Dream Center, Pastor Hartwell is now at the forefront of the effort to mend this divide. The Contemporary English Version translation, provided by the American Bible Society, has been his tool of choice in bringing the Word of God to people on both sides. “The American Bible Society is providing me with various translations, and now people are able to sit down and say, ‘Pastor, I now understand the Word of God.'” The Scripture is quickly permeating the communities surrounding the Dream Center in what Pastor Hartwell describes as the “most effective ministry” he has been a part of in his thirty-plus years of service to the area.

“Our Lord went out and found the outcasts,” he says, commenting on the transforming power of God's Word as it spreads throughout Appalachia. Humbled, Pastor Hartwell still holds dearly the New Testament that first led him to the Lord — with its pages caked with soot and coal dust. And, he holds just as tenderly the many stories of hope and faith that have emerged from this broken region because one woman dared to dream.

Hero on a Guardrail

A woman sits alone on the guardrail of a small bridge. A muddy creek flows beneath her, as she waits quietly. A car slows to a halt — there's an inaudible exchange of words. Because prostitution is rampant in Logan County, to the unfamiliar eye it looks like just one more proposition made and accepted. But those native to these parts know better. This is Debbie Midkiff, extending to the men who stop, the living Word of God.

A single mother who was the product of a broken home, Debbie is thick-skinned and fearless, ministering in the most dangerous areas of the county: Cora and Logan Heights. There she witnesses to hundreds of prostitutes and drug addicts who are deeply hurting. As she sits on the guardrail, Bibles in hand, waiting for men to stop and make an offer for sex, she is prepared to offer them something in return — God's Word. When Debbie ministers to the prostitutes, she offers them food, water and shelter to build a relationship of trust before giving them a Bible. Her attempts to lead these women away from this sordid life do not go over well with everyone, and there is a price to pay. “We've sat on Cora Bridge and had beer bottles and pop bottles and everything thrown at us. We've even had guns shot at us, baseball bats taking the headlights, but that's my life.”

That had not always been Debbie's life. Three years ago she came to the Dream Center like so many others in need. “Life had dealt her a lot of hard blows,” says Pastor Hartwell, who has been counseling Midkiff since her arrival there. “When Debbie came to us [she] had a lot of issues of inward hurt, issues of brokenness — no self-esteem, no confidence. But when we talk about Debbie, we talk about a woman now who has self-esteem, who has a smile . . . and it's nothing now to see Debbie with her Bible, reading.” The power of God's Word has transformed Debbie, and she, in turn, is now transforming the spiritual landscape around her.

Describing the young woman's transformation, Pastor Hartwell says, “Debbie has learned what it is to accept the love of God and know God loves her and that she loves God. She has learned to not hold hurt in, but to give love out.” Because of Debbie's commitment to giving Scripture to prostitutes, Logan County has witnessed major long-term change. Hartwell says of the change, “A short time ago, prostitution and drug dealing, just two miles from this Center, was rampant. And now, there is far less activity, and Debbie . . . was key in getting that broken.”

As a living example of a “new person” in Christ (2 Corinthians 5.17), Debbie Midkiff boldly leads others to find new life in Christ through her passion for the lost and her love of the Scriptures. She readily admits, “If it wasn't for the Bible I'd have no other way. My life is totally dependent on this Bible, and I love it.”

Andrew Procopio. Photo by Chris Leaman
Andrew Procopio. Photo by Chris Leaman
God's Word Going Deep Underground

Shy and a bit jittery, Andrew Procopio is not your typical coal miner. But then again, he doesn't have a typical ministry either.

When Andrew descends thousands of feet into a seam of coal, he doesn't just bring a lunch pail and a headlamp. He brings the Holy Bible, wrapped in a plastic bag to protect it from dust and grime.

When asked why he keeps bringing more Bibles, he answers with a simple statement: “I've seen results.” Andrew is making a huge impact in the lives of the coal miners in Logan County.

“Having this Bible helped me lead my boss to faith,” says Procopio as he recounts the story of giving a copy of the ABS New Testament to his curious boss. “You see the guys that it has touched — it sticks with them, it shows, and that really means something to me and I know it means something to God.”

Trusting in a God's Promises

A year ago, Earl Harless was considered a dead man. After a serious car accident in September, Earl began to bleed internally. The future did not look bright for this resident of Gilbert Creek, a town just outside Logan County. Earl knew things were not good when on several examinations the doctors found nothing but blood hemorrhaging in his body. It was then that Earl and his wife, Trula, turned to Ezekiel 16.6 (KJV), and read, “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee polluted in thine own blood, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live; yea, I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” And for Earl, these living promises came alive. The bleeding stopped.

On his next visit to St. Thomas Hospital, the doctors were dumbfounded by his recovery. Harless told them the only thing he knew: “We read that Scripture and I never bled another drop since then. But I was bleeding to death until we read it.” Now, they call him the “Miracle Man” at St. Thomas.

But the challenges were far from over for Earl and his family. In May, a flash flood devastated the land they had lived on for 43 years, sweeping through the valley, and taking with it thousands of dollars worth of Earl's tools and large chunks of their back yard, siding and roof. Again faced with intense adversity, the Harlesses turned to the Word of God for guidance.

“You get it from above,” says Earl, citing Jesus' response to Peter when, through the Holy Spirit, Peter acknowledges him, as God's Messiah (Matthew 16.17). “So everything you got comes from above. If you don't know it, he didn't give it. If you know it, God gave it to you, you didn't get it any other way.”

Pastor Hartwell tells of reaching out to Earl and his family after the flood and presenting him with a Bible on behalf of the American Bible Society. It was a remarkable experience. Despite his losses, Earl Harless began to share about the power of the Word of God as he thanked Pastor Hartwell. “Of all that has happened to me . . . this is a great gift today, this is a great gift.”

“We went there to minister, but he ministered to us,” Hartwell mused. Earl Harless, the Miracle Man, is alive and well, thanking God for his life and health, and trusting God in all things.

Marion “Chainsaw” Rogers. Photo by Chris Leaman
Marion “Chainsaw” Rogers. Photo by Chris Leaman

Out of the Ordinary

Patient. Loving. Selfless. Hardly adjectives one would ordinarily use to describe a man known by most of his friends as “Chainsaw.” But, there is very little that is ordinary about 82-year-old Marion “Chainsaw” Rogers. Chainsaw is the night watchman at the Appalachian Dream Center. Four or five times a night he patrols the property, before returning to his camper behind the facility.

The Dream Center is now Chainsaw's world — its protection and vitality, his purpose. This was not always the case, however. Eight years ago, Pastor Hartwell found him living under a makeshift canopy by the local train tracks. Wild dogs were his companions in a muddy lean-to made from rusty roofing tin and scrap cloth. With no running water, his skin was encrusted with coal dust and his clothing tattered from working in the local mines. And, like many of the people who live in Appalachia, Chainsaw's vision and hearing were severely impaired from years of inadequate medical care. Pastor Hartwell saw the drastic need to rescue Chainsaw from this situation and offered him lodging and a warm meal, but Chainsaw, viewing this gesture as a “handout,” refused to accept it.

Hartwell lovingly pursued Chainsaw for months, earning his trust little by little, informing him that the offer at the Dream Center was not a handout but a gift from God. Chainsaw finally accepted the invitation and went to the Center for a meal. “When he got here, Chainsaw had a trash bag full of belongings in a homemade wheelbarrow, and a dog.” But, at 74 years old, Marion “Chainsaw” Rogers began a new life. From his first days, Chainsaw committed himself to the Center and worked his way deep into the hearts of the staff. “It's just been a spiritual love affair ever since . . . He not only works with his hands but he works with his heart; he is what the Appalachian Dream Center is all about,” says Hartwell with a grin.

There remains one roadblock to Chainsaw's access to the Scriptures: he cannot see well enough to read. Because his eyesight is impaired, even the Large- Print Bibles that the American Bible Society offers are too hard for him to see. This is a common problem among many people throughout the Appalachian area, and such impairment has caused many elderly and impoverished people not to have access to the Word of God. In response, the American Bible Society has now delivered its first shipment of Audio Bibles to the region so that the Scriptures can reach even those who cannot read. Chainsaw, a man who “used to love to read the Word of God,” is now able to rekindle his passion for the Bible. Marion “Chainsaw” Rogers is a powerful testimony to the transformational power of God's Word.

The Appalachian Dream Center has become what Pastor Mike Hartwell's late wife had always envisioned: a ministry — and with the help of the American Bible Society — one that effectively distributes Scripture and offers the loving kindness of Christ to thousands of people in need throughout Appalachia. “No matter where you have been, you can come out of your valley, you can have hope, you can live your dream and you can have a new vision,” says Hartwell.

The Word of God is alive and actively transforming lives in the valleys of Logan County and beyond. And, the revitalized Dream Center is shining light in the darkest places and bringing the hope of God's Word to the heart of Appalachia.

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