LEWISTOWN - Dilapidated houses, sewage running into the streams, extreme poverty - these are the things that local missions teams see in War.
Not a battle but a small West Virginia town, War is one of the most impoverished communities in the U.S.
Several years ago, sister churches Grace Covenant in Lewistown and Grace Community in Mount Union began traveling to the southern community to repair houses and build relationships through Hope Force International.
Photo submitted by REV. RON NEFF
The police department and jail is one of many deteriorating buildings in the impoverished town of War, W.Va. Two local churches send missions teams to repair homes in the depressed area, once home to a massive coal mining industry.
"We believe ministry flows through relationships," said the Rev. Ron Neff, pastor of the Lewistown church. "When you touch a life in a tangible way, the Bible says gifts open the way for the giver."
The teams repair roofs, electrical wiring, porches and more - deterioration that the residents of War cannot afford to fix, Neff said.
George Camp, elder at the Lewistown church and leader of the missions trips, will lead a team of seven to the community this Sunday. Throughout the week, the team will build a new roof on a house for an elderly couple, he said.
Camp explained that poverty is rampant in McDowell County, where War is located. The area once was full of industrious coal mining companies that bought up all the land and brought the town's infrastructure with them.
The communities became dependent upon the companies for everything - their homes, groceries, schools, churches and doctors, according to information from Hope Force. Because the companies owned the land, they controlled the other businesses that came into the area. The economy revolved around coal, according to the information.
When the companies began a mass exodus in the 1950s, the county lost more than three-fourths of its population. Decades later, the unemployment rates are little better. Drug and alcohol abuse are major problems, Camp said.
The nearest community with stores and job opportunities is 45 minutes away from War, Camp said.
Because people cannot afford repairs, their houses, utilities and public buildings continue to deteriorate, he said.
The sewage runs through "straight pipes" directly into the streams, Camp described.
"We can't imagine that in our nation today," Camp said.
The biggest need is roofs, Camp said. The coverings are leaking, falling apart, and residents do not have the money to fix them, he said.
Faulty electrical wiring also has caused one man's house to catch fire several times, Neff said.
"People are so poor, they just rigged things up," Neff said.
Neff described the area like the backwoods life of the Waltons. The people have good spirits, but they are very poor, he said.
Last summer, the team met Ms. Minnie, a 95 year old who grew up and watched the community deteriorate.
Though she had a rough life, starting work at age 12, Neff said the woman called her life "blessed" and praised God for it.
On the last night of the missions trip, the group met in her home to worship in song with her, Neff said. As the group sang "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace," Ms. Minnie raised her arms to Heaven and cried, he said. Before the group left, the elderly woman gave each of them parting gifts - picture frames and vases that she pulled off her walls and shelves.
Neff remembered her telling the group several times, "Follow the Lord and trust in him, and he'll take care of you. Look at me. He takes care of me."
Relationships are what the local teams hope will grow as they continue visiting War.
The missions teams always work with the locals, building a relationship while they reconstruct their homes, Camp said. Hope Force emphasizes the importance of the relationship more than getting the job finished quickly, he said.
"We are building hope in the name of Jesus," Camp said.
Hope Force also does not perpetuate the poverty mentality by simply giving handouts, Camp said. Families are asked to assist with manual labor or with the cost of the project, he said.
Neff said the missions organization also trains local residents in "handyman" skills like carpentry.
As the mission in War begins to grow, the church plans to continue its missions trips to War.
Rick Sheffield from the Mount Union church currently is working in the community, preparing for the team to come down Sunday, Neff said. Sheffield also plans to volunteer at the War mission for several weeks throughout the summer, he said.
Neff shared Scripture from the Message Bible that the Lord impressed upon him when he visited War last summer:
"Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized - whoever. I didn't take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ - but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I've become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn't just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!" 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.