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Making an Impact in America’s Poorest County

Rural West Virginia church offers literacy training in an effort to reverse the curse of poverty.

Frankie Rowe can read most of his Bible now, thanks to literacy training at Jolo Family Worship Center . Still, he looks forward to taking more classes once the Assemblies of God church in rural West Virginia finishes its new Family Life Center.

“We used to get mail and I’d have to get someone else to read it,” says Rowe, 57, a self-taught mechanic who struggles with health problems.

He credits Sharon Rose, wife of Pastor Charles E. Rose, with helping him persevere.

“She taught me to take my time,” Rowe says. “She said it doesn’t matter how long it takes, as long as you can read.”

With a June boost from construction teams from Lapeer Assembly of God in Michigan and Calvary Temple Assembly of God in Saraland, Alabama, the Jolo church hopes to be able to use its two-story, 6,500-square-foot facility by late August.

The multipurpose building will serve as a community center for the unincorporated area of about 800 people, tucked away in the southwestern corner of McDowell County, the southernmost in the state.

Plagued with high unemployment after the decline of the coal industry, McDowell’s population has dwindled from nearly 100,000 in 1950 to around 19,000, according to a 2016 U.S. Census estimate. The government deems McDowell County the poorest in the nation, and the place with the lowest life expectancy, due to high smoking and obesity rates. In the past 15 years, the opioid epidemic in McDowell County killed more people than anywhere else in the nation except neighboring Wyoming County.

Literacy training, General Educational Development classes, a feeding program, and basketball and volleyball games in the Jolo church’s gymnasium are among the programs already planned.

The center has dorm rooms for 40 people, so mission teams that come to rehab housing, work on churches, and lead vacation Bible schools have a place to stay.

Charles Rose traces his inspiration for the center back to 1995, when a young man talked about wanting a safe place for kids in the area to play basketball in an area with no organized recreational opportunities.

A former draftsman, the pastor recalls sitting down and making a sketch for such a building, including educational space.

“The Holy Spirit spoke to my heart and said education is going to be the only thing that will break this vicious cycle of poverty, drugs, and welfare dependency,” says Rose, 64.

Because much of the work has been done by volunteers, Rose estimates the church has invested only $150,000 in construction — although it’s taken three years to get this far.

The late summer opening is providentially timed. It will come after the church retires the mortgage on its 10-year-old sanctuary, freeing up funds for maintenance.

The Appalachian Ministry Network is helping furnish the Family Life Center interior. At the network’s annual conference in May, congregations made a faith promise of $80,000, with the first $40,000 given to the Jolo Family Worship Center in June.


Network Missions Director Tim W. Boyd, 58, says the building will provide needed short-term housing in an area where there are no motels or campgrounds.

“I get calls from all over the country from people who want to come to Appalachia,” says Boyd, pastor of East River Church in Bluefield, Virginia. “Some can’t come because there’s no place to stay.”

In addition, Boyd says offering training for people to learn to read and write, and get meals, will give residents hope — a commodity he says is necessary physically and spiritually.

“The gospel is practical as well as spiritual,” Boyd says. “If you don’t have hope for life, you lose hope for eternity.”

 Rowe, a 20-year member of Jolo Family Worship Center, hopes attending literacy classes will encourage his 12-year-old grandson to go with him and learn more than he is able to teach the youngster.

“It will be a tremendous asset to the community,” Rowe says of the new facility. “It’s been needed for a long time.”

One reason Rose is enthusiastic about the center is his expectation that it will facilitate more encounters like the one he had with a drug-addicted woman who showed up at the church for a food and clothing distribution.

The woman said she woke up that morning cold and hungry, then realized where she could find food and clothing. She asked Rose to pray for her and to help her find Jesus.

“Little stories like that help me go on,” Rose says. “Somebody’s got to love the drug addict, the alcoholic, the homeless. If I can be Jesus to them, I want to do that.”

Kenneth C. Walker

Kenneth C. Walker is a freelance writer, co-author, and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia. He has more than 4,500 article bylines and has written, edited, or contributed to more than 90 books.