Rev. Brad Davis is reimagining the rural Appalachian church. This entails imagining a new gospel – a gospel rooted in the reality before him.

Take a ride with Davis along the two-lanes that thread these Southern West Virginia coal camps – once vibrant; now vigilant – through the hollers and up the switchbacks, some so abrupt, Davis affirms, you’ll pass yourself round the bend.

Take a ride and absorb the context, here in McDowell County.

Davis has imagined, and now practices, what he calls the “holler gospel.” A holler, he explains for the uninitiated, is, in the vernacular of Central Appalachia, the hollowed-out, low-lying depression between two hills that forms a very narrow valley.

“Many of us live in these hollers,” he’s written, “which is an appropriate metaphor, I think, considering our people have been hollowed out and laid low for generations by outside exploitative forces.”

Holler gospel is “the work of transformation in communities ravaged by scarcity.”

Davis is a child of these mountains and their hollers, born and hewn in nearby Mingo County, coal mining families on both sides. He’s an ordained elder in the West Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church and ministers to the congregations of six churches here in McDowell County, a place his friend Jeff Allen, who once served here and is now executive director of the West Virginia Council of Churches, calls “a landscape of grief.”

In 1950, the population of McDowell County was right at 100,000; it’s now around 17,000.

“We are on the clock,” Davis avowed. “We are on life support.” Emergency measures are in order.

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Reimagining the rural Appalachian church, Davis urges, entails “rediscovering and reinterpreting the good news on our own terms and in our own specific context” – spreading a gospel that replenishes dignity and humanity.

The words of this gospel are most fluently expressed through deed.

Recapturing Radicalism

Davis, 52, was called into the ministry relatively late in life, on Easter Sunday of 2005. The catalyst was a sermon proclaiming “there is always a new life, a resurrected life available, through Christ,” he recalled. “That resonated.” He’d worked as a journalist and, for a time, been “mixed up in the drug culture.”

“Easter Sunday was the day that my own personal resurrection began to take shape.”

He’d been raised in the Methodist church, and it remained his home. The Wesleyan tradition of the faith, he said, “is embedded in my DNA.” What spoke to him was a focus on the disenfranchised and on lifting folks out of poverty. “I refer to John Wesley as the first liberation theologian.”He received his master of divinity degree from Methodist Theological School in Ohio, where he read the works of the Latin American liberation theologians and the philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman, author of the book Jesus and the Disinherited, he which he asks, “What does Jesus have to say to those with their backs against the wall?”

Old King Coal what are we gonna do?
The mountains are gone, and so are you!
But even so, rejoice dear ones!
Let not your hearts be troubled, my people.
Do not despair.
Do not buy into the lie that there is nothing,
that we are nothing, without our king.
He is not the sum total of us and our identity.

A Eulogy for King Coal by the Rev. Brad Davis

On the surface, Davis’s relatively radical reading of the scriptures seems an odd fit for rural Southern West Virginia. “We’re rooted in radicalism down here,” is his understanding.

“We’re known as the ‘Free State of McDowell,’” both for the fact that a great many Blacks were elected to public office in the early 1900s and for the independent spirit of its people, which he believes can be traced to the labor struggles of the same era.

Davis said when he first arrived, in 2022, his predecessor informed him that a prerequisite of being a true resident of McDowell County is “a middle finger in the air to everybody.”

Folks here, he noted, have been lied to. They’ve been told the coal industry will be revitalized. McDowell County went for Obama in 2008 (one of only seven of the state’s 55 counties to do so). In the past couple of general elections, it’s gone overwhelmingly Republican. But “voter turnout has been paltry, to put it mildly. People have lost faith in either party to help them.”

That spirit of independence, that radicalism, has been in decline, Davis says, “and it’s something that needs to be recaptured. And I think if we do recapture it, everything has the potential to change.”

‘A Force to Be Reckoned With’

Davis is a founder of The New Society, a grassroots Central Appalachian movement that embraces, he said, “a vision of a renewed community along the lines of God’s kingdom.”

“The flavor of religion in these parts primarily focuses on the afterlife: pie in the sky, by and by, endure your present circumstances because you’ve got a reward coming after you die – whereas Jesus says in the Gospels that the kingdom of God has come near; the kingdom of God is something that begins in the here and the now. And my simplest definition of what the kingdom of God is, is the world as God intends it to be.”

“This ain’t it,” Davis said, gesturing toward a desecrated mountaintop. “This is not it.” 

Rev. Davis at Thorpe United Methodist Church. (Photo by Taylor Sisk / Deesmealz)

“The New Society is a vision of what this community can be,” in the spirit of what Martin Luther King Jr. described as the “beloved community.”

An immediate expression of that vision is Davis’s collaboration with a local organization called EDGE: Economic Development Greater East. EDGE’s stated mission is the fashioning of a model for a new rural and community-focused economy of local citizens “rooted in the interconnected fundamentals of life”: food, meaningful livelihood, the health of people and place, and connection.

Amelia Bandy, EDGE’s cofounder and executive director, said the work is about building solutions to the consequences of a single-sector economy. It’s about taking “an asset-mapping approach to what we have here. … What can we build upon?”

Major initiatives include a demonstration farm on which they’re raising goats, for meat: a nutrient-rich, lower-saturated fat, lower-cholesterol red meat alternative. EDGE is also now marketing products under the brand Appalachian Gold, launching with a meat sauce that’s been in cofounder Jason Tartt’s family for generations.

Bandy considers local faith leaders’ participation in EDGE’s mission to be critical: “I think the faith communities are one of the last places where people are actually connecting, fellowshipping.”

Davis is taking an active role. “He’s a force to be reckoned with,” Bandy said. “He’s really a leader of the people. He’s not just someone who’s preaching on Sunday. … He’s someone who believes that through the word, restorative justice is possible.”

A Dialogical Approach

Navigating through the shells of once-thriving coal camps – camps defined by the cultural influences of people who’d arrived from Italy, Poland, Russia to make a better life – Davis attested that “in many respects, this country was built on the broken bodies of Central Appalachians. Coal helped to industrialize this nation. Our blood and our bodies built the nation, and we deserve more than what you’re seeing. We deserve more than to be abandoned and forgotten.”

“We exist here in a reality that the rest of America doesn’t know about and probably doesn’t care about,” he said. “And it’s truly heartbreaking. Our people deserve so much more.”

“When the industry came, it upended our way of life.” Those who labored were indoctrinated, Davis said, to believe that “coal is your identity; coal is your sole identity, and without coal, you’re nothing. Without coal, you can’t survive.”

What’s left in the wake, in the words of Caitlin Ware, a third-year student at Duke University’s Divinity School and native West Virginian, is “broken bodies and broken land” – and, here in McDowell County, a determination to build a new economy.

After completing her studies, Ware plans to join in this effort. Davis has taught her much.

“I think Brad has this really special way of connecting,” she said. “What I see him do, most beautifully, is empower people – even the way he preaches.”

We shall restore our lost soul that for over a
century has put its misplaced trust in a false
savior—unwilling to see that our salvation
comes not from the strength of an industrial
king, nor from the resources extracted from
under our feet, but from our greatest
resource: us.

A Eulogy for King Coal by the Rev. Brad Davis

In his largest church, in Welch, Ware said, Davis preaches what’s called manuscript preaching: a prewritten sermon; old school. But in the others, he practices dialogical preaching.

“His way of empowering people in those communities to feel like they have something to say about God is that he’ll ask questions,” Ware explained. “He’ll read a scripture passage and say, ‘So what do you make of that?’” Or, “‘What is Jesus feeling here?’ – taking little bits and pieces of a scripture passage and giving it to the people in the congregation as a community to say, ‘How does this impact your life?’ And, ‘You have something to say here in shaping theology in this community. … You have the power to see God move in your community and in your life.’”

Holler gospel affirms that “every person has God within them,” Ware said, “and God will move from below.”

“It’s healing work,” she said. “There’s healing work to be done.”

“My concept of salvation is far broader than just individual salvation,” Davis said. “My ministry here is one of healing, of bringing healing to this place, which entails healing of the land, healing the people, and healing the community.”

“Salvation” in the Biblical sense, he said, “means to be made whole.”

The holler gospel espouses a practical faith; it proclaims the coming of a new reality – “a new economic reality,” Davis asserted, ushering in “the resurrection of our communities.”

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