Gospel Light Shines Bright on My Old Eastern Kentucky Home
Most people know by now that on July 27, 2022, historic levels of rain fell on Southeastern Kentucky taking the lives, homes, and livelihoods of many.
As an Eastern Kentucky native, born and raised in Red Fox, Kentucky, my heart continues to ache with much grief as I witness the magnitude of the loss and trauma that so many image bearers in the region continue to experience because of the flood.
Adding to this grief is the fact that some of the hardest hit areas in the region were in my native Knott County where businesses, homes, churches, and entire communities are badly damaged or destroyed, and where the loss of life was the highest. Adding insult to injury is the fact that I personally know people who suffered some degree of loss. As I wrote in the immediate aftermath of the flood, the financial, material, physical, and spiritual needs in Eastern Kentucky are immense.
Since writing that article, I traveled with SBTS colleague Justin Irving to Knott County and witnessed the devastation firsthand. We also had the privilege and honor to take a financial gift from our church, Sojourn Midtown, as well as gift cards from many colleagues at Boyce College and Southern Seminary. We also took select items to help meet some of the material needs in the community.
We were able to partner with my home church, Hindman First Baptist Church (HFBC), to help restore the flood-damaged home of my mother in the faith, Ms. Ella Prater. During our short time there, we saw both the heartbreaking devastation in the community and the amazing and faithful work HFBC is doing to meet both the material and the spiritual needs in the community under the leadership of both Dr. Mike Caudill, senior pastor of HFBC—affectionately known by his parishioners and the community as Brother Mike—and with his wife, Alice Caudill. I was a member of HFBC from 1996 to 2001.
Brother Mike, an MDiv graduate of SBTS, has faithfully served HFBC for 34 years. During his ministry there, the gospel of Jesus Christ has spread like wildfire throughout many parts of Knott County, across Eastern Kentucky, and beyond as they have produced many disciples of Jesus Christ, disciples who have, by God’s grace, reproduced themselves across the region and across the globe.
In the flood’s immediate aftermath, HFBC—which averages around 150 to 200 in attendance each Sunday—served more than 9,000 meals to local residents, many of whom had lost everything. With the help of generosity from church members and volunteers across the state, HFBC served around 1,500 meals a day for several days following the flood.
In addition to working tirelessly to lead HFBC to meet the community’s physical needs, Brother Mike and Mrs. Caudill continue to serve alongside fellow members to take material goods to community residents who are unable to come to the church to receive them. Members of HFBC have also taken the love of Jesus and the light of the gospel message to specific communities in the area.
Preaching the gospel, teaching the gospel, applying the gospel, obeying the gospel, and serving the community in practical ways in the name of Christ because of a love for the gospel is nothing new for HFBC—as I have personally experienced.
Personal Journey: Grace Germinates Among the Weeds of Tragedy
Since its inception, fervent gospel ministry has been the church’s mission and witness in the community. I experienced this ministry firsthand both before and after I became a Christian as a 17-year-old. Like many family members in my childhood and early teenage years, Brother Mike, Mrs. Caudill, the Prater family, and many of the saints at HFBC played a major role in saving my life.
As I was coming to the end of my senior year of high school in the spring of 1996, I had no direction, no purpose, no realistic goals. Worse, I didn’t know Jesus. Our community experienced a tragedy that changed the direction of my life forever and changed the lives of many young people and adults. A dear high school friend, Merri Kathryn Prater, a fellow senior and fellow athlete, was involved in a terrible car crash and suffered a severe brain injury. Merri Kathryn was a Christian, and her mother, Ella Prater, my senior English teacher, and Merri Kathryn’s father, Willie Prater (now with the Lord), were also Christians. The Praters were members at HFBC.
During her stay in the hospital after her accident at what was then known as the University of Kentucky Medical Center, several of her classmates and members from HFBC visited Merri Kathryn and sought to comfort and support the family. Brother Mike and numerous church members were a constant presence at the hospital. They showed their faith by loving, caring for, comforting, and weeping with the family. They also loved, comforted, and wept with many of us young people, who ranged in age from early teens to late teens; we quite simply couldn’t understand or handle the trauma of seeing a classmate and dear friend whom we loved and a family whom we loved going through this pain and potential loss.
Even as a non-Christian, I was amazed by the consistency with which Brother Mike, his wife, and the saints at HFBC shared the love of Jesus with the hundreds of young people at the hospital and with other supporters from the community who were there. I was taken by the compassion and love they showed the Prater family and concerned friends. I was also filled with wonder by the deep faith they demonstrated as they encouraged us young people to place our faith in Christ and to pray fervently for Merri Kathryn. In the foyer of the UK Medical Center in 1996 I, still an unbeliever, gathered in circles of intense prayer for my friend, sang hymns, and heard for the first time the famous hymn “Amazing Grace” as members of HFBC led in worship there in the foyer.
Those moments shook me to the core of my being in deep and meaningful ways, and they changed me forever.
To my dismay, however, Merri Kathryn never gained consciousness, and she never left the hospital. On April 3, 1996, she went to be with Jesus. The funeral was held at HFBC. I was a pallbearer. Brother Mike preached a sermon called “Three Cheers and a Savior”—Merri Kathryn was both a Christian and a cheerleader.
That sermon and the entire service changed my life direction in every possible way.
Brother Mike preached the gospel clearly and beautifully celebrated Merri Kathryn’s life. Many friends, family members, and teammates spoke of Merri Kathryn with beauty and grace. Mrs. Prater eulogized her daughter with profound eloquence, supernatural strength, deep faith, and with the joy of the Lord in a manner that left us completely mesmerized.
Merri Kathryn’s funeral was filled with sorrowful joy and with lament, but not with despair as the Prater family and HFBC’s saints grieved with gospel hope. I encountered the greatness of God for the first time at that funeral, as I heard Brother Mike preach the gospel with stunning clarity, and as I heard for the first time those words of the famous Rich Mullins song, now forever engraved on my soul as the choir and congregation sang, “Our God is an awesome God, who reigns in heaven above, with wisdom, power, and love, our God is an awesome God.” Merri Kathryn’s life—one so well lived, her friendship, her church (which eventually became my church), and her family (which eventually became my adopted spiritual family) truly saved my life.
The night Merri Kathryn died I received the sad news along with my baseball teammates after a game. My teammates and I, many of whom were not Christians, erupted with loud cries of lament, shock, devastation, and anger—at God. A teacher at my high school, also a member of HFBC, had attended the game. She came onto the field, placed her hand on my shoulder as I groveled in the dirt near first base with anger, confusion, and uncontrollable pain, and she exhorted me: “Jarvis, you must put your hope and your faith in God.” Several of us heard that HFBC was open. Someone told us Brother Mike and other church members were willing to talk to us.
I joined a few teammates and some parents for the short drive from the baseball field to the church. There, one of my teammates, an underclassman and HFBC member, sat down beside me in a church pew, opened John 3:16, and read it aloud; he explained, “Jarvis, this is what life is all about.” Brother Mike likewise explained the gospel with great clarity to the young people and parents who had gathered there.
That night, one of my teammates, Mark Combs, gave his life to Jesus. He and I were good friends in high school, eventually became college roommates, and we attended Southern Seminary together. Pastor Mark is a two-time Southern Seminary graduate, and he currently serves as pastor of Summit Church in Hazard, Kentucky, a congregation he and his wife planted. Pastor Mark and Summit Church are likewise doing great work to help flood survivors in the region.
Grace Breaks Through
I didn’t give my life to Christ on the night Merri Kathryn died. But, on April 22, 1996, during a baseball game, I asked Brother Mike’s son, Casey, a teammate, if he would ask his father to give me a call because I wanted to talk to him about becoming a Christian. After our game that night, Brother Mike called, explained the gospel with great power, and led me to personal faith in Jesus Christ. Approximately two years later, Casey went to be with the Lord.
Shortly after my conversion, Brother Mike baptized me, and I became a member of HFBC. In the ensuing years, the body of HFBC walked with me through Christian discipleship and helped me discern a call to ministry. That body licensed me into the ministry, ordained me into the ministry, supported me financially so that I would be able to attend college and seminary, supported me spiritually, and they walked with me in numerous joys and trials of life.
Brother Mike and HFBC ministered to and loved my family well, and multiple family members gave their lives to Christ because of the direct impact of Merri Kathryn, her family, Brother Mike, Mrs. Caudill, and the saints at HFBC. Brother Mike and Mrs. Caudill, the Prater family, and so many others at HFBC adopted me as their spiritual son.
I say it again: That body truly played a major role in saving my life!
The Light Still Burns Bright in Eastern Kentucky
So, as I have heard, read in the news, and have seen firsthand how Brother Mike, Mrs. Caudill, and the saints at HFBC are responding with grace, love, compassion, mercy, and with the hope of the gospel during this time of crisis in the region, I’m reminded that the gospel’s light continues to shine bright on my old Eastern Kentucky home through the ministry of HFBC and through the kindness and generosity of so many residents there.
It’s deeply gratifying to see the work that the Lord is doing through HFBC and to see the impact of the generosity and sacrifices of so many people from different parts of the country. However, neither they nor other churches in the area can do this work alone.
The path ahead for Knott County and for the rest of the Southeastern Kentucky region so devastated by the flood is long and difficult. Residents there will need help for many days, months, and years to come. There are myriad needs in the area because the devastation is so widespread. There are financial needs, educational needs, material needs, mental health needs, and a need for able-bodied people to help with physical labor. Two of the most important material needs are money and workers to help with cleanup. There are also many spiritual needs.
Want to Help?
For members of our the SBTS and Boyce College community who may be interested in helping, there are abundant opportunities to share the love of Christ as you show the love of Christ in the communities which the flood waters ravaged.
I respectfully ask members of our seminary community to consider prayerfully creative ways you and your churches can help the region over the long term. We can partner with trusted pastors in the region and travel to the area to help these pastors and their churches on the ground in the work of loving our neighbors as ourselves and sharing the love of Jesus. We can join with the many faithful churches there who continue to shine the bright light of the gospel on my old Eastern Kentucky home.