How one rural church is reaching its community
By Bob Smietana
Every year for almost a decade, Grant Hasty has invited a few friends over for Thanksgiving dinner. They carve turkey, mash some potatoes, and enjoy fresh-baked rolls from the family’s recipe.
But at this meal, more than 1,300 neighbors showed up last year—in a town of around 1,200 people.
The tradition started seven years ago when Crossroads Community Baptist of Whitley City, Kentucky, rented its first building—a shuttered restaurant complete with a commercial kitchen.
It was just another sign, says Hasty, that God is up to something in McCreary County, Kentucky, one of the poorest places in America.
And it’s a sign that small churches still matter—especially in a county where churches are few and far between.
As America becomes more secular, even the Bible belt is changing.
Most people here in McCreary County—which has 17,000 residents—believe in God, says Hasty. But they are rarely part of a church. The 26 local congregations draw fewer than 4,000 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Congregational Membership study.
That leaves about three-quarters of the population in this Bible belt county unchurched.
And many of the congregations are small. A church of 150 would be a megachurch in McCreary County. Crossroads is nowhere near that size.
“On a good Sunday, we’ll go as high as 60 people,” says Hasty. “On a low Sunday, we will have as few as six people show up.”
Still, the church is committed to reaching its neighbors.
Along with the annual Thanksgiving dinner, Crossroads’ Lord’s Café serves more than 200 free home-cooked meals every week during the school year and 900 a week during the summer. The café is also home to weekly clothing and grocery giveaways, with a beauty salon and gardens out back.
The learning center—where the church worships on Sundays—also has hosted a tutoring program, held backpack giveaways, and housed volunteers each summer who repair homes in the community. Volunteers have even run a Bible study at a laundromat where they wash people’s clothes for free.
Their next project: The Light Community, where people recovering from addictions and other troubles can live while they get back on their feet.
“We are just meeting people where they are,” says Hasty.
Not long ago, none of this seemed possible.
Trouble in the coal mine
Hasty and his wife, Gina, moved to McCreary County in 2008 so he could pastor a small church.
Once the thriving home of the famed Blue Heron coal mine, the county had fallen on hard times. Median household income was $30,000 less than the national average.
In recent years, the death rate for middle-aged white women in McCreary County has gone up by 75 percent. It’s a place where people die alone in the prime of life and, as The Washington Post recently put it, so-called “deaths of despair” are commonplace.
Life inside the church walls had problems as well.
Not long after Hasty started as pastor, his church fell into turmoil when the youth pastor admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a church member and quit.
And as a new pastor, Hasty pushed too hard on his dreams of doing outreach in the community. He wanted to bring in volunteers to fix up homes in the community, tutor kids, and start a food pantry.
Hasty had a vision to bring in those who stayed away from church by demonstrating the love of God to them through the congregation. The church wasn’t ready for many of those steps, however, and before long, he and the congregation split.
With that, the Hastys thought they were done with small-town life in McCreary County. “We wanted to get back to civilization,” he says.
But they couldn’t find anywhere to go.
Hasty never heard back from any of the places he sent résumés. And the more he and Gina prayed, the more they felt God wanted them to stay and plant a new church.
They began worshiping with a few friends in their living room. Eight years later, that new congregation—known as Crossroads Community Baptist Church—is still going strong.
And most of the folks at Crossroads have a story to tell.
Stories at the Crossroads
Karen Hatfield helps out in the kitchen at the Lord’s Café every week. She came to the church six years ago, after volunteers repaired her daughter’s fire-damaged house.
Hatfield had been going through a rough stretch. Three of her grown children struggled with drug addiction. Her young daughter died of an illness, and Hatfield had been in a car wreck, which cost her her job.
After her daughter’s house was damaged, Hatfield went to visit Hasty. The family could pay for the materials needed for the repair, but not the labor. They’d heard Crossroads often had volunteers who could help.
It turned out a group from Maine was in town to volunteer. The group showed up and fixed the house.
Hatfield told Hasty she wanted to give back.
“I said, ‘We don’t want something for nothing,’” she says. “What can I do to help?”
Since then, her daughter, Tonya Tapley, and husband, Lonnie, have become regulars at the café and the church. Tapley was baptized in the fall of 2016. Hatfield and her husband were baptized the following spring.
For Tapley, the church has been a lifesaver. She’s struggled for years with addiction and has had a few run-ins with the law. She also lost a 6-month-old daughter to illness.
Tapley first met Gina Hasty at the county jail. She and her sister had been arrested on an outstanding warrant, while on the way to make funeral arrangements for the sister’s husband, who had taken his own life.
The church and her parents helped pull her through.
“They’ve never given up on me,” Tapley says. “This church is the best thing that could have happened to this community.”
Dean Coffey, the dishwasher, rides his electric bike back and forth from his trailer to help whenever the café is open.
A widower, he used to walk five miles each way to get meals for his wife, when she was dying of cancer. Now, the café is his refuge.
Henry Tapley, who greets people at the door, was once a drug dealer. Today he leads prayers at the weekly grocery giveaway and is a regular volunteer at the café, despite physical challenges. At 67, some days he can barely walk, his feet swollen from diabetes.
He, too, came to church after a volunteer from out of town worked on his house. He wanted to give back—and he’d been looking for a church where he could belong.
The church made him feel at home, despite his past. And it has given him work to do that makes a difference. For that, he’s grateful.
Volunteering at the café gives him a reason to get up each day. “I don’t want to miss it because I love doing it,” he says.
Hasty is grateful for the chance to serve as well. Running the café, Hasty says, is a chance to show people the love of God.
Each meal is served by a volunteer who offers to pray with every guest. And if the guests want company, volunteers will often sit with them and talk.
Hasty will visit too—if he can get a break from helping in the kitchen.
“It’s just a whole other world of meeting people where they are versus them coming into the church to see me,” he says. “God’s really provided.”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.
The Lord’s Café—featured in this story – had to be shut down and relocated in mid-January after water pipes burst during a cold snap.
Insurance will cover some but not all of the costs. The church could use volunteers to help them repair the restaurant back to working order.
More information is available on the café’s Facebook page.