Monday, August 1, 2011

Red Bird Mission

This sign welcomes people to the Red Bird Mission campus.
Red Bird Mission fills a narrow hollow deep in the mountains of the Cumberland Plateau; it is surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest and follows the lines cut by the Red Bird River and Highway 66 in southeast Kentucky. The school is in the foreground with other Mission buildings around the corner and up the road.
Red Bird Mission
Although this blog has served me well in recording thoughts and experiences, it hasn’t yet shown readers the context of Red Bird Mission. Ok, so there’s been a picture of the Clinic and my office, of Alan working in a wood shop and with a team. Perhaps it sounded like we were single-handedly saving a community in Southeast Kentucky from poverty, disease and want. Nothing was further from the truth. We were, in fact, part of a community with a 90-year history of service in the Red Bird Valley.

Begun in 1921 with the arrival of two teachers and a preacher, Red Bird Mission was the answer to a prayer for a school for the children of mountain families too remote to benefit from county-seat schools. The geography in which these families lived was isolated and mountainous, the far-reaching back yards of three counties that came together near the tiny community of Beverly. A year later a nurse joined the group and soon a school, church, and hospital were thriving—today known as the Red Bird School, Red Bird Clinic, and Beverly United Methodist Church. With long ties to the United Methodist Church through its Evangelical United Brethern (EUB) roots (the EUB and Methodist Episcopal churches merged in 1968 to form the United Methodist Church), Red Bird Mission has been reliant on the goodwill of this denomination for all of its existence.
Today Red Bird Mission has expanded into five major components of service: education, health care, economic opportunity, community housing, and a broad range of services called community outreach. (Although Red Bird Clinic is its own legal entity, it shares the administrative services of the Mission and is governed by the same board of directors; here I include the Clinic when I speak of Red Bird Mission.) Although the Mission maintains historic ties with United Methodists and has many convoluted relationships with varied groups within the denomination, Red Bird Mission and Red Bird Clinic are governed solely by an independent board of directors organized under Kentucky law. The Beverly Church (mentioned above) and other United Methodist congregations in the region fall under a separate UM church structure called a Conference and are not governed by Red Bird Mission’s board. For all practical purposes, the churches and social service structures at Red Bird are completely separate, with Red Bird Mission and Red Bird Clinic governed by their board of directors and the churches falling under the United Methodist Red Bird Missionary Conference. With “Red Bird” in the names of all these entities and with their related histories, church ties, and geographical proximity (offices governing both sit side-by-side), it is very confusing for people from outside the area to recognize the distinctions.
The human side of the story is this: Red Bird Mission touches the lives of about 14,000 mountain people a year. The Mission has learned how to provide needed services in one of the most difficult environments and cultures in the United States today. Poverty and isolation still permeate mountain life; human need still outstrips the capacity of governments, industry, human services, and churches to provide. Red Bird Mission combines the best elements of all of these and somehow makes it work—not that the work is easy or complete—but it works.
The following pictures and text from the five ministry areas presents a most incomplete and unfinished story.

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