Volunteers help build an affordable home in Hazard, Kentucky. Photo by Shawn Poynter/Daily Yonder

Do It Yourself. The churches I have worked with over the years live by this simple rural philosophy. They build their own sanctuaries and fellowship halls. They fix their own roofs and fight their own furnaces. They devise their own unique ways of governing their churches that sometimes differ from the official denominational rules, and this often drives denominational managers crazy. The vital, healthy congregations out here attend to important relationships with their community and with the outside world, yet they trust their own local wisdom when solving problems. Great and weighty theological matters like grace and forgiveness may ultimately be God’s work. But living the faith means that human beings must roll up their own sleeves and break a sweat. Here’s what I have seen to be true: the practice of DIY builds creative and confident congregations who engage their communities.

DIY is a part of the cultural landscape of rural America and not just in church. It is important for many institutions including vital, healthy families. And before I share a story about my own family, I need to say in this politically obsessive moment that I am not making a political argument against government. It is more than possible to acknowledge both the value of DIY and to advocate for strong, effective government.

Ed Huskins, my Papa, left the house every morning with his brother, Hoke, and his cousin, Sam, to mine for mica in the mountains of Mitchell County, North Carolina. They returned every evening in papa’s flatbed truck opened the cellar doors and unloaded the day’s take. The shimmering stacks of mica sheets lined up along the dirt floor. These three would wait for the mica prices to rise high enough to load it all up and take it into town to the processing plant. They would return home sometimes with hundreds of dollars, sometimes with thousands of dollars of cash in their pockets.

Papa learned to mine from his father, Fate. They did it themselves, not being employed by any company. But they did it within the context of their community. Papa and Sam would call upon relatives and neighbors and ask for permission to mine upon their land and compensate them in return. Papa was the demolition expert. He kept cases of dynamite around the house. Sam watched the market. Ed, Sam and Hoke kept this up for several decades.

As he started to get older, Papa adapted and came up with a new creative idea for work. He and Mama invested their money into building a restaurant that became an institution in Spruce Pine; it was called the Circle Restaurant. They built several different houses, raised their children, fished for trout, shared stories about the old days and enjoyed life together. Sam learned to play the market. He invested in a little-known company at the time called Lowe’s. Because he was generous, the small local hospital now has Sam’s name on it.

Do It Yourself. This is so much a part of life in the congregations in which I have worked. DIY is often about work, yet this attitude relates to different parts of life. Papa built his own houses. He maintained his own truck. He planted his own garden and ate his own produce. He did his own plumbing and electric. He did not distill his own whiskey, but he did drink his neighbor’s. DIY builds an engaging and confident inter-relationship between human beings and the world.

One Saturday morning at the church food pantry we were in a crisis. The line waiting for us wrapped around the church and we knew that the food on the shelves and in the freezer was already low. We did the best we could packing up food and praying for our neighbors’ concerns. But it felt like the opposite of the loaves and fishes story when we ran out of food. Afterward the volunteers sat around considering possible solutions. Write another grant proposal. Go to the church boards of the little 1,100 person town and ask for more. Call the big grocery chains in Roanoke and beg for mercy. Del sat quietly but then said in an understated tone, “I think we need to do this ourselves.”

Del was not then a member of the church, but he asked if he could come to our next board meeting because he had an idea. At the meeting he suggested having a golf tournament fundraiser which immediately raised a number of eyebrows. Then he claimed that many of the people we served were spending money on food for their animals and running out for themselves. So he wanted to raise money for pet food as well. Both ideas challenged typical small town pantry orthodoxy. I was skeptical, myself. Fortunately, all I said was, “Del, tell us more about what you’re thinking.” By the time he finished with a well-conceived plan and a heart-felt plea the board voted unanimously to do it.

The results were remarkable. The first year 18 foursomes teed off at the first Annual Pantry Fundraiser. The golfers were surprised that they did not receive the usual tees and golf balls as tournament favors. Instead there were homemade cookies, pies and cakes. One of the most important outcomes, however, were the new volunteers at the pantry who were surprised to discover just how much need existed in their own town. The effort built new relationships and inspired new learning, but most of all it built community.

Over the years I have learned to welcome this local wisdom and DIY spirit within the congregations I have served. Rural communities’ DIY capabilities are so often undervalued (often by rural communities themselves), but these efforts when nurtured serve as mustard seeds of great potetntial. At a time when our federal government is mired in dysfunction, it is important to remember that the vitality and health of our local communities are not wholly dependent upon forces outside of our control. Creative and adaptive people do amazing things and the fruits of their labors flourish as others support and nurture them.

Steve Willis is a Presbyterian (USA) minister who has pastored small town and country churches and currently serves the Collierstown Presbyterian Church in the Shenandoah Valley. His writing about the resilience of rural churches and communities includes the book, Imagining the Small Church, Celebrating a Simpler Path (Rowman and Littlefield, 2012). He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and lives with his family in Bedford, Virginia, where from his front door he can be hiking the Appalachian Trail in 15 minutes.

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