Flooding in Eastern Kentucky

The devastating flooding in Eastern Kentucky is not just “more bad news” for Currie and me, but personal. Having lived in Lexington, Kentucky, for over eleven years, both Currie and I are “Kentucky Colonels” – with certificates signed by the governor to prove it (see below)! The flooded “hollows” (hollers!) are on roads we traveled often to presbytery meetings, church retreats, and to the small Appalachian town of Pikeville.

Over the years I’ve served on the boards of three Presbyterian affiliated educational institutions – that are good to keep in your prayers. Presently, as some of you know, I’m on the board of Friends of Forman Christian College – an 8000-student college (11thG through masters) in Lahore, Pakistan. 

For five years I served on the board of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA (my doctoral seminary).

However, the first board on which I served was in the heart of eastern Kentucky: Pikeville College (now the University of Pikeville).

Until the mid-1900s, life in the eastern Kentucky mountains was isolated. In 1963, much of the isolation was alleviated with the opening of a gorgeous 4-lane scenic highway known as “The Mountain Parkway.”

Earning a living in the region has rarely been easy. The economy of Pikeville was originally based on coal. Until 1980 there were as many as 40,000 miners in Eastern Kentucky. Since then there has been a drastic change in the economy – there are now there less than 4,000 miners, with medical services being the largest employer in Pikeville itself (sadly, carrying a significant burden relating to opioid addiction).

If earning a living has often been tough in the region, so too the people. Sometimes tough in an infamous way. If you thought that the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys was a Hollywood myth – let me disabuse you: Pike County in the late 1800s was the home of the McCoys! (The Hatfields strayed over the border from West Virginia less than 10 miles away).

But tough in another way, too: pursuing the work of Christ where few people wanted to go: and often leading the way, Presbyterians. From the mid-1800s through the present, Presbyterians have been a vital force in Appalachia, establishing many churches and remarkable educational and medical institutions.

  • The picture of the flooded church (known as the “log cathedral”) is at Buckhorn, where, in 1902, an orphanage was established by the Rev. Harvey Murdoch (now a children’s home serving troubled youth from across the state. See buckhorn.org).
  • In the 1960s when the United Mine Workers hospital system was about to go bankrupt, leaving miners with little or no healthcare, the United Presbyterian Church national mission board stepped in to reorganize healthcare in the region, spending $8 million (equivalent to $70m+ today) to create the Appalachian Regional Healthcare system (see https://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/250, and arh.org).
  • In 1889, Presbyterians from the north established a school in Pikeville for mountain children that in time would become the college and then the university. The university itself has always been a beacon of hope to the region, providing education mainly for first generation college students. This ministry has been especially important with the rapid decline of mining. During my tenure on the board, from 1996-2006, the college took the risk of addressing the crying need for medical care in rural areas of the nation by establishing a school of Osteopathic Medicine that focuses on training primary care physicians committed to small town practice. The “risk” is thriving.

Our work as Presbyterians in this whole region has left a lasting legacy of tough faith and practical hope – and my prayer is that we will again rise to the occasion in this moment of devastating loss. Our Serve Council may be providing information on other partners, but our denomination’s Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is already in action. Check out https://pda.pcusa.org/situation/july-flooding/
So glad to be your pastor,
The Honorable Colonel David Renwick
(with invaluable assistance from The Honorable Colonel Currie Renwick!)