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Overcoming an Environmental Disaster

Small church meets the financial obligation of cleaning up an oil spill.

While last year’s COVID-19 pandemic-inspired lockdowns brought in-person church services to a halt across much of the nation, for Angie L. Gillespie, it coincided with a disaster at the church she pastors where the impact continues to this day.

On March 22, 2020 — the first day Bethel Assembly of God couldn’t meet at its building due to the pandemic — a 250-gallon heating oil tank ruptured in the basement and spilled oil across nearby U.S. Highway 52. The disaster left the Kimball, West Virginia, congregation with an $18,000 bill for cleanup and another $10,000 for repairs.

Gillespie recalls that she received a phone call that Sunday afternoon from a resident, who lived down the hill, about a diesel fuel smell.

“We ran up there and oil was running out the back door, across the road, and out into our parking lot,” says Gillespie, 45.

After state environmental authorities notified Gillespie that the McDowell County church had to remove the diesel from public property, it took several days for a private contractor to siphon up the oil. But the pastor never expected the church’s insurance company to later deny the damage claim.

Once in-person worship resumed in May, the 25 people who regularly showed up on Sundays faced a staggering responsibility — especially after several other agencies denied subsequent appeals for relief. To make matters worse, the pandemic canceled Bethel’s customary fundraisers: a peanut butter egg sale in the spring and a pumpkin roll sale in the fall.

Bethel’s adherents did a lot of praying and fasting, according to Gillespie, pastor of the church since 2014. Thanks to prayer, strangers showed up at her door in nearby Welch, telling her the Lord had laid it on their hearts to give to the church. In addition, attendees contributed tithes and extra offerings.

However, the congregation continually kept up sending their financial commitments to Assemblies of God World Missions, Appalachian Ministry Network, and outreaches such as U.S. Missions Adult & Teen Challenge. This generosity soon will be rewarded. Now that $200 monthly payments and additional offerings have reduced Bethel’s hazardous materials bill, the Appalachian Ministry Network recently pledged to defray a third of the remaining costs. The network has sent an appeal letter to member churches, hoping to raise another third.

The Two Virginias section (one of eight in the network) is leading the drive, which sectional presbyter Jimi D. Watson says is significant, considering that most congregations there average only 50 to 60 adherents. Watson says the campaign to help the small church symbolizes the AG family’s nature.

“The beauty of our Fellowship is we’re not a bunch of churches trying to do our own thing,” says Watson, 55, pastor of Tazewell First Assembly. “We are a voluntary, cooperative fellowship, and we work together.” By March 15, congregations in the section had raised $4,000 and the network had donated another $5,000.

This kind of caring is what keeps Bethel’s pastor going. Two months after the oil spill, Gillespie’s mother, Rita Franklin, died. A desire to see their children raised around their grandparents kept Angie and her coal-mining husband, Doug, in the area, despite a major economic decline in recent years.

“Many times I’ve prayed, Lord, what do You want me to do?” the pastor says. “And I get the feeling those 25 people are as important as if I had 250. Honestly, I don’t know what I would have done without them. When I was discouraged, they would encourage me.”

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.