Bishop Fairley tours flood-ravaged Eastern Kentucky, offers comfort, support

August 08, 2022
By Alan Wild
Rev. Kevin Burney, Rev. Karen Stigall, with Bishop Leonard Fairley in prayer with others at Bowman Memorial UMC, Hazard, KY - By Cathy Bruce

Bishop Leonard Fairley led a group from the Kentucky Annual Conference on a daylong trip Friday, Aug. 5, through the areas of Eastern Kentucky ravaged by flash flooding in late July.

Along with Fairley were Rev. Kevin Burney, Assistant to the Bishop; Jim Morse, the Conference’s Disaster Response Coordinator; and teams from both Conference Communications and United Methodist News Service. Also, along for most of the day was Rev. Karen Stigall, Superintendent of the South East District, where much of the deadly flooding occurred.

Here’s what we saw:

Methodist Mountain Mission, Jackson (Breathitt County)

Flood Buckets and water at the Methodist Mountain Mission t be distributed
- By Connie Offutt
After about a two-hour drive from the Conference Office in Crestwood, our first stop was the Methodist Mountain Mission in Jackson. The office building was packed with donated food, spilling from a room at the back into the hallway. We were greeted by Executive Director Karen Bunn and Director of Communications Andy Mitchell, among other office staff.

Fairley visited with staff in the crowded office area. He asked about flood buckets; the Mountain Mission has distributed hundreds to surrounding counties. Morse noted that 600 buckets were delivered Saturday, July 30, and were gone within hours.

Mitchell said that when the nearby North Fork of the Kentucky River flooded overnight July 27-28, their buildings were surrounded by water that didn’t recede for more than two days. That Friday, when staff tried to get to work and couldn’t, they instead went home, prayed, and waited for the water to recede, Mitchell said.

“The flood was bad, but this help is on the opposite end of the spectrum,” he said, adding that they’ve had offers to donate from not only Kentucky but Indiana, Pennsylvania, and numerous other states.

As Fairley and others toured the warehouse, Mitchell got a message from his wife working at one of the mission’s stores, saying a woman there was looking for a walker and a microwave and asking if they were available. They were. Mitchell said it always feels good to be able to tell people that the mission has the requested items.

After the warehouse walkthrough, staff gathered in a circle around Fairley as he thanked them for their work and prayed for them: “The rains and streams may rise, but you provide through the hands of these men and women.”
Bowman Memorial UMC, Hazard (Perry County)

During the drive from Jackson to Hazard along Kentucky Route 15, the group saw some dramatic scenes from the flooding, including a mobile home knocked off its foundation and tipped at a 45-degree angle. We also saw at one point a school bus that had been caught in the floodwaters and mashed against damaged buildings.

Hazard is the Perry County seat of about 5,000 tucked into a narrow valley, with much of the town built into the adjacent hills. Bowman Memorial is situated on a hill in the middle of town. Rev. Peter Han met the group at the back door and escorted us inside the church to a meeting area. Inside waiting to talk with us were several members of Bowman and its sister church, Lothair, about two miles away – in the valley, adjacent to the North Fork of the Kentucky River. Rev. Jim Savage, Assistant Superintendent of the nearby Central Appalachian Missionary Conference (formerly Red Bird), also was there.
Bowman Memorial UMC, Hazard, KY
 - By Cathy Bruce
The group sat and talked, and we learned that Lothair had sustained some foundation damage and the partial collapse of a non-bearing segment of wall in the basement area. We also heard firsthand stories of escaping the floodwaters.

Vickie Sharp, a member of Lothair, said she and her husband live on a hillside and were not directly affected. They have electricity but no water. (Lack of water service remains a major challenge through the region.) “Personally, that’s just an inconvenience,” Sharp said of the lack of water, expressing thanks that they never lost electricity.

Like many others, she has been volunteering at a local relief center and said that God is providing: Often just when they would run out of something, someone would come by and donate just what they needed in that moment, she said.

Sharp also praised the young people who have been pitching in. Tearing up slightly, she said her 19-year-old grandson and some friends had encountered one couple with two young children. The couple had escaped with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and the children were wearing nothing but a layer of mud.
Zece Davidson of Bowman Memorial UMC, Hazard, KY - By Cathy Bruce
Another woman, Zece (pronounced ZEE-cee) Davidson, who serves on the board of trustees at Bowman, said the devastation looked like a war zone: “You see all these people with nothing (to begin with), and now they have absolutely nothing, not even a roof over their heads.”

The morning of the flood, she was doing her devotional and listening to the rain – ironically thinking of how peaceful it sounded. When she learned of the flooding, she was concerned about her mother and her son’s girlfriend.

Both turned out to be OK.

When they got to her mother, who lives in Whitesburg in Letcher County, they found her doing laundry and listening to the radio. She was fine, but they made her leave with them anyway.

Davidson said shovels and squeegees are in short supply and desperately needed. The shovels are needed to dig out caked dirt that has dried as the floodwaters have receded.

Morse spoke to the group, focusing on two points he frequently stresses: coordination and communication. He also finally connected with Bowman’s lay leader, Judy Couch, whom at Pastor Han’s suggestion Morse had been trying to reach for several days.

The church is hoping to help a nearby Baptist church that experienced severe damage from the flooding, losing pews and hymnals. Morse said that a number of Presbyterian churches in the region have closed in recent years, and their furniture is waiting for new church homes, so he passed along that possibility. He praised Bowman-Lothair’s desire to help, pointing out that “relief supplies do not have a denomination.”

After Fairley offered a prayer for Bowman-Lothair and the Hazard community, the group headed to our next stop.

Hindman UMC (Knott County)

Hindman, KY - Submitted Photo
Hindman UMC is about two miles outside Hindman, on a ridge above the town of about 700, which is situated along the aptly named Troublesome Creek. At one point, virtually the entire downtown area was submerged in what longtime locals are calling the worst flooding they can recall.

Knott County also appears to have suffered the largest number of fatalities, with at least 17 confirmed deaths – among them four children. (As of early August, the official death toll across the region was 37, with at least three people still missing.)

Outside the main entrance was a large homemade sign inviting people to COME INSIDE. Rev. John Street took Fairley and members of the group on a quick tour of the damaged areas. Troublesome Creek runs near the church and adjoining guest lodge. The lodge took on a lot of water; the church itself mostly escaped damage, though its parlor had 8 inches of standing water and the carpeting had to be ripped up, exposing the concrete floor. All the furniture  also had been removed from the normally well-kept room.
1,000 pounds of hot dogs donated by Tyson Foods at Hindman UMC - By Connie Offutt
Hindman is an active church with a history of serving, both near and far, and this disaster has been no exception. The church’s combination gymnasium-sanctuary was set up with tables of clothes and other supplies for those in need – including one table with packages of dog and cat food available. There was plenty of food, as well – including a refrigerator packed full with 1,000 pounds of donated hot dogs and breaded chicken wings from Tyson Foods.

Various volunteers, young and old, were working; one group of younger people helped unload about three dozen flood buckets and 20 cases of bottled water that Bishop Fairley’s team had brought; 10 of the buckets were personally assembled by Fairley and his wife, Dawn.

The Bishop walked outside with McCoy Taylor, the church lay leader, to look around. Fairley also got to briefly visit with Taylor’s almost 9-year-old grandson, Myles Burnett, who was helping.

Inside, Morse told church members that 300 more buckets would be arriving from Methodist Mountain Mission the next day. Before the roughly three dozen delivered by Fairley’s group, the church was down to just two buckets – and before we left, volunteers had already started taking some from the stack to hand out.

When Morse had finished speaking and before the Bishop offered his prayer, Morse asked for questions. There were none. “We just appreciate what you do,” Pastor Street said.
Graceway UMC, Prestonsburg (Floyd County)

The aroma of roast beef and mashed potatoes greeted as we walked into Graceway. Rev. Roy Harlow and his church team, including the youth, have been busy cooking meals to deliver to flood victims. The church has also been hosting a team from Crisis Response International, a nonprofit organization from Blue Ridge, Virginia, that came to assist.
Bishop Leonard Fairley with volunteers at Graceway UMC, Langley, KY - By Mike DuBose UM News
Between 20 and 25 youths have been helping to deliver meals in recent days. On this Friday, they had delivered 85 meals. Three girls, ranging in age from 12 to 15, were there, along with several adult volunteers, when Fairley ducked into the small kitchen to chat.

“Thank you for being the hands and feet of Christ,” Fairley told them, before praying and invoking the story from John 21 of Christ imploring Peter to “feed my sheep.”

Before leaving, Fairley visited with a few other people, including two women sitting at a table in the fellowship hall and a local high school football coach. Also at Graceway was Sandy Penix, the Conference’s Disaster Relief Coordinator for the Kentucky East District. (The flooding affected areas in both the Kentucky East and South East Districts.)

Penix, who has worked long days almost from the moment the waters rose, said that having Fairley pray for them brought her to tears – after days of providing a shoulder for others to cry on.
Campton UMC (Wolfe County)
Campton UMC - Submitted Photo

About an hour up the road from Prestonsburg, in Campton, we stopped briefly to thank Rev. Jody VanSickle, who with his wife, Marla, and their daughter, Virginia, greeted us outside the church.

VanSickle and members of the church have been very active helping at three county schools serving as shelters. Wolfe County is some distance from the flooded region but close enough to lend a hand.

VanSickle, who has been providing regular email and social media updates to Dawn Fairley, said some members of the church have been working 20 hour a day at the makeshift shelters.


‘Chief shepherd’

Bishop Leonard Fairley praying with the volunteers - By Connie Offutt
Riding back to the Conference Office in Crestwood, Fairley touched on the daylong visit and the importance of “presence” and lifting the spirits of people as “chief shepherd.” He referred to something he had told the group at Hindman about the importance of being present during a disaster:

“It’s not so much that I’m a bishop. It’s that I’m a pastor.”

Watch the video story by the Kentucky Annual Conference about this trip.
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