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Hoping for Happier Trails

Pioneering U.S. missionaries take the gospel to rural Appalachia.

Each year, millions of tourists pass through the Appalachians, drawn by the fall colors, scenic roadways, and world-famous hiking trail. But beyond the luxurious mountain resorts, staggering poverty and despair plague much of the region.

Growing up on the edge of Appalachia in eastern Tennessee, Keith A. Hall saw the struggles firsthand. The son of Appalachian natives, he spent summers with his grandfather in rural West Virginia, helping him deliver food to needy neighbors and family members.

“I remember him telling me, ‘Never forget where you came from,’ ” Hall says.

Years later, while serving as an Assemblies of God missionary associate in Ecuador, Hall sensed God calling him to return to the U.S. and minister to a new generation of Appalachians. Last spring, he and his wife, Alicia, became Assemblies of God U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries missionaries to the at-risk youth of rural Appalachia.

“The needs in rural Appalachia are unique and complex,” Hall says. “The struggles and challenges are far-reaching.”

Depression, drug abuse, and unemployment are chronic issues in the Appalachians. Many children grow up in impoverished single-parent homes with few positive role models and little hope of a better future.

Keith Hall is a former teacher and basketball coach, and Alicia is an ex-teacher and cheerleading coach. Their education background has helped them connect with school leaders, who have appreciated the couple’s interest in mentoring students. The Halls recently started Bible clubs at two schools in rural Cocke County, Tennessee, near Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At another local school, they pioneered a Christian-based Trailblazers Running Club that doubles as a physical education class. Though participation in the club is optional, every student in kindergarten through eighth grade opted to join.

The Halls ultimately plan to establish weekly Bible, running, CrossFit, and student leadership training programs in five of the county’s schools. A Smoky Mountain Dream Center is also in the works.

“We will be in the Dream Center network and similar to the centers located all over the country,” Hall says. “However, we will be unique because of the rural setting and makeup of the culture.”

In addition to fully functional transitional housing for women rehabilitating back into society, plans for the center include a student leadership facility, a program to help the families of incarcerated women, a fully functional farm where students and families can learn the value of honest work and responsibility, and a horse therapy program.

The Halls are partnering with AG U.S. missionary candidates Emily and Britt Houser, who minister to inmates and parolees in Appalachia and founded the Smoky Mountain Dream Center last year. Together, they are raising funds to purchase 100 to 150 acres for the Dream Center site as they continue to gain the trust of the local people.

“The Appalachian culture is naturally very private,” Keith Hall says. “Even though I was raised in East Tennessee and have family throughout Appalachia, I’m viewed as an outsider in the county where we are currently ministering. For this reason, we have chosen to go into the schools where there is immediate validity to what we are doing.”

Though the needs in Appalachia are great, the missionaries know God is greater.

“Our prayer is for lives to be changed by the personal knowledge of Jesus Christ, for chains and cycles of hopelessness to be broken through the power of God,” Keith Hall says.

IMAGE - The Hall family

Christina Quick

Christina Quick is a former Pentecostal Evangel staff writer who attends James River Church (Assemblies of God) in Ozark, Missouri.