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Students Serve Alongside Pastors in West Virginia

Mikayla Gainor

In the Appalachian region, the second PRM-ICO team visited five pastors in West Virginia. Last week, I connected with two members of their team, John P. Roboski and MacKenzie Harrington, who described their experience over spring break. The following is a retelling of the stories they shared.

Starting off in Moundsville and New Martinsville

On Sunday, the team split their time between working with pastor John Keener at Moundsville Church of the Nazarene and Dennis Bills at Trinity Church in New Martinsville. Before arriving at the Nazarene church in the morning, some of the team embarked on an unexpected detour which proved to be a unique experience. The following is Jake Santis’ reflection on this memory:

“On Sunday morning me and four others drove to New Martinsville for church. We thought there was Sunday school, but apparently not. We now had an hour to kill so we decided to just drive into the mountains away from the small river town. After a long incline we made it away from the river and things immediately changed. There was a mix of nicer homes with trailers that had trash everywhere. As we kept driving, we drove past a sign which said, ‘no well traffic.’ That meant that the people in this section of land are likely not benefiting from the natural gas fracking. The road was gravel and in rough condition; there were many potholes, and parts of the road were washed out. We were dense into the woods and would occasionally drive by a trailer and see beer bottles on the side of the road. We decided to pray as we drove through. Whenever someone felt like it, they would pray for the needs of those living in these homes and that the gospel would permeate this area if it hadn’t already. Eventually we reached the top of a ridge and found an old cemetery named ‘Hope Cemetery.’ We stopped because it was a nice view and I find old cemeteries interesting. There was a contemplative spirit amongst us as we read the names and dates that went back to the 1800s. The recent ice storm had made a mess of the branches here, so we cleaned it up a bit and then drove back to the church.  

“It was clear that God had led us into this experience, and it was moving for me to see the beauty of the land mixed with deep poverty. We were only about an hour away from my own home as well. I am thankful that God’s schedule for our trip was better than the one Tess, my co-leader, and I had made."

Once the team arrived at Pastor Keener’s church, they joined the congregation in the main service. They experienced an altar call and witnessed the trusting vulnerability of the congregation during the time of shared prayers and praises. Especially with some of the team coming from larger home churches, Harrington said that they appreciated experiencing the familial intimacy this community shared with one another.

Santis recounts “another great experience that occurred the same morning. After the church service, we participated in a potluck and the reinstitution of a monthly prayer gathering at the church. It was simple, but it was meaningful to be a part of the community as they worked out how and when they should have these meetings. This is the nitty gritty of church life that I had not been exposed to yet as a college student. I was honored to be there for this. The purpose of our presence was mostly to pray with them and help launch these meetings. I pray that these consistent prayer gatherings can be powerful for the small body of believers there who are so committed to their church.”

This is the nitty gritty of church life that I had not been exposed to yet as a college student.

PRM-ICO student leader, Jake Santis

A Pastor-Led Tour of the Community

Later on, Pastor Keener gave the team an eye-opening tour of Moundsville. Two main features of this small town contribute to the heavy spirit Keener described: the Penitentiary and the Grave Creek Burial Mound. The Penitentiary was in use until the late 1900s, and it was an execution site for several prisoners. “Old Sparky,” the electric chair which carried out these executions, is no longer in use, but it is on display for tourists to see. The prison itself is currently used as a training ground, and people can sometimes hear gunshots reverberating through town. Right across from this outdated prison is a Native American burial mound. Although sobering, learning about this part of the town’s history helped the team understand the cultural context of Pastor Keener’s ministry and especially his heart for outreach.

Keener demonstrates devoted care to his community through extensive outreach efforts. A main challenge for his church was getting hit by Covid and seeing attendance numbers drop significantly, especially among the youth. A large part of his vision involves increasing attendance and reaching various groups in the community, including those in more obscure areas. In an effort to do so, one thing he explained doing was driving to the poorer areas and interacting with the kids and families that lived there. People from the church either joined the families for picnics or brought them along to church. Despite this church’s struggles, it was inspiring for the team to see Pastor Keener’s joy, genuine care, and trust in the Lord to take care of things. They were encouraged to put aside their own worries about the future, especially as it pertains to next steps after college.   

On Sunday afternoon, the team met with Dennis Bills, the pastor of Trinity Church in New Martinsville. He is an 8th generation West Virginian who felt a calling back to that area after schooling. Being bivocational, Bills works full time, and he makes the three-hour drive from his home to preach at this church every week. Through a time of prayer and conversation with the team, he discussed his loyalty to WV and the benefits of staying in the same place where you grew up. While their congregation also leans towards being elderly and smaller in size, Bills expressed his hopes for gaining younger members who would help reboot things by bringing energy and new ideas.

On Monday, the team returned to Moundsville Church of the Nazarene and assisted with several chores such as cleaning pews, vacuuming, and painting. They also handed out flyers in the community to let people know about a new evening service that was starting up soon. Although only five people in Pastor Keener’s congregation had requested this time as their only availability, he was willing to create a whole other service in order to meet their needs. Roboski commented that “Pastor Keener clearly had a vision for that little community and a deep care for the elderly, as well as people of different races.”

Isaac Harmon at Hagans Christian Church 

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the team spent the majority of their time with Isaac Harmon’s church in Core, WV. On Tuesday, they helped by painting, gardening, and completing other structural projects such as building a blessing box which would store food for people. In the evening, they joined the church in a potluck dinner. The following is a story from that night recorded by James Condon, one of the team members:

“We were eating dinner after serving with the Hagans Christian Church family on Tuesday night and the youth pastor’s daughter, Scarlett, who was in first grade, graciously occupied a chair next to me. Our conversation involved a discussion of the intricacies of Disney’s Encanto as well as an analysis of our sugar tolerances (how many sweets we could have before we went crazy). As the night progressed, Scarlett explained to me that she desired to host a dance party with all the young adults in the church community as well as our whole ICO team.  

“In her words, ‘It would be a great way for everybody to get to know each other’ because ‘We don’t get to see you guys a lot.’ Those words were simple, but they struck me profoundly. We had met these people merely hours before and they were already opening their building to us and feeding us. Now this seven-year-old informs me of plans to have this extravagant event to reach out to people far older than her that she barely knew. It was astonishing to see that Scarlett already knew the value of fellowship before she had all her adult teeth.  

We had met these people merely hours before and they were already opening their building to us and feeding us.

PRM-ICO student participant, James Condon

“The next night, the party ensued. There were flashing colored lights, glowsticks, streamers, and jubilant dancing to lively songs like God’s Great Dance Floor. It truly was a joyful time and one of the highlights of the trip. All because Scarlett had a vision to bring people together to celebrate and praise God. Through this interaction I learned the value of joining people together to foster community development regardless of the capacity, the joy young children bring to a family and congregation, and that Scarlett may have no more than five sweets under any circumstance.”

The Integration of Life, Work, and Ministry

On Wednesday, the team split their time between working at a thrift store, Penny Pinchers, and touring a recovery center for homeless people and addicts with Pastor Harmon. In the evening, they joined the church in an Ash Wednesday service.

In particular, the team commented on Harmon’s dedication and humility. Harmon is bivocational and works as a full-time state trooper in addition to pastoring his church. The team was awed to hear about how intentionally he uses his job as a forum for ministry. Since he makes arrests as a trooper, he takes advantage of the situation to hear the stories of the people sitting in the back of his cruiser. They frequently talk about how they have tried everything yet still seem to end up in this position. Harmon takes this opportunity to ask them, “Have you tried faith?” Most of the time, people say they have not. When Harmon asks if they are willing to talk about it, they often say yes, so he has the whole car ride to share the gospel with them.

The team was able to meet one of the women who Harmon had previously arrested and was now working at the recovery center. They were encouraged by seeing how God had used Harmon to shake her out of her previous lifestyle and be transformed. When they met her, she said she was so nervous that she was “sweating bullets” to see Pastor Harmon again! JP described this meeting as one of his favorite memories:

“To be able to laugh with her and the pastor about how far she had come and how she still felt nervous despite her recovery and him being dressed in plain clothes rather than his uniform was amazing. To have a pastor working and seeing the worst of people and helping them to become the person God called them to be was incredible. Although few people respond to the opportunity to change and embrace Christ, the pastor said it made his work as a trooper worth it. We all prayed together, and it was just a snapshot of a week rich with ordinary people living into the extraordinary interactions with Christ in their lives.”

Wrapping Up the Week in Fairmont, West Virginia

On Thursday, the team spent their time with Michael Richards at Cornerstone Ministries and Allan Copenhaver at The Baptist Temple, both located in Fairmont. Cornerstone is where the team stayed overnight for part of the week. Roboski commented that “this is where we really saw the generosity of the Appalachian culture; people were just so gracious and so quick to give us food, offer encouragement, and pray with us.” There was one couple in particular who fed the team twice. Not having kids of their own, they expressed their heart for this college-age group of students, and the team was touched to experience their hospitality.

Between these two churches, the team helped clean out and organize a food pantry, they visited an addiction site, and they joined an online service. Over lunch, they were able to talk with the pastors and Roboski expressed that “It was cool to be around adults who were living lives that you really saw exemplified Christ and who were so open with giving advice. It is something you admire as a young person.” 

A Final Reflection from John P. Roboski

The unique thing about this trip was that we simply came alongside these pastors and their churches in their long-term ministry. It was so humbling to see how faithfully these people were serving their communities. Their devotion to their congregations and to Christ was inspiring. It didn't matter how small the church was, which can be easily forgotten when we focus on numbers as our means of measuring success.

The most transformative things we experienced were the conversations we had with the people we worked with. There wasn’t anything “mind-blowing” on this trip, but every day there were these little things that were like “wow, that’s pretty unique. Praise God, that’s so cool!” These are solid things I can take with me to remember and know in my heart for the rest of my days without being afraid of crashing or losing the momentum like a spiritual high can sometimes be. We just got to hang out with each other as a team, work with some really cool people, be in the Word all the time, and be edified both through the communities we worked in and through the work we were doing.



Mikayla is a writing intern for the PRM and a junior majoring in Psychology and Biblical and Religious Studies. She is from the Chicago area.