By Chris Hughes
On Friday mornings, volunteers set up six-foot folding tables and chairs in the narthex of a church in the south end of Louisville. The church bears the familiar markings of a post-World War II Baptist church, from the plain stained-glass windows to the wood paneling on the walls and ceiling. But the church is now home to a vibrant, missions-minded congregation of Falam-speaking Chin refugees from Burma who have been resettled in Louisville over the past decade.
Located in the heart of the largest concentration of refugees and immigrants in the city, the Louisville Chin Church was a natural fit for a partnership with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Steve Clark and Annette Ellard to live out their ministry among Karen, Chin and Karenni refugees from Burma. Since many in this congregation have known them since arriving in the United States, the church leadership readily accepted the opportunity to partner with Clark and Ellard in launching Hope Rising Ministry Center in their space.
Twice a week, they set up shop and help refugees navigate life in the U.S. That could mean anything from helping to pay bills to advocating on their behalf in the school or court systems. “We think our primary role is relationships,” Clark said.
One-hundred-and-sixty miles away in McCreary County, Ky., Rev. Scarlette Jasper, another CBF field personnel, hops in her car to drive to one of the nine counties where she serves with those living in persistent poverty. McCreary County is the poorest county in the U.S., with more than 41 percent of the county’s 17,000 residents living below the poverty line. The median income in 2017 was $19,264. For a county to be considered in persistent poverty, 20 percent of the population has to have been living below the poverty line for more than 30 years. McCreary County is one of many economically distressed counties in the Appalachian foothills of south-central Kentucky and east Tennessee where Jasper ministers.
“There are 301 counties classified as being in persistent poverty in the U.S. and 44 of those are in Kentucky,” explained Jasper, who also is part of Together for Hope CBF’s rural development coalition. “And a large portion of those counties are in the area where I serve.”
Jasper estimates that she puts 35,000 miles a year on her car as she drives around the region. Her ministry focuses on combating predatory lending, helping establish financial literacy and promoting healthy living. In a given week, she may lead a workshop on the debt trap of payday loans, work with someone one-on-one to develop a personal budget or simply drive someone to take care of essential errands.
“I drive one lady from Monticello to London to go to the doctor because she can’t get there otherwise,” Jasper said. That’s 172 miles, roundtrip. “I do the basics of bearing witness to Jesus Christ and the transformational work of alleviating poverty in the area.”
Separated by fewer than 200 miles, McCreary County and Louisville can seem like worlds apart. Surrounded by the rolling foothills of the two-million-acre Daniel Boone National Forest, McCreary County is at once wild, beautiful and remote. In Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, with a population of 620,000, it can feel like the whole world is at your doorstep, especially in the south end.
Though the contexts for ministry for these CBF field personnel may seem vastly different, their calling and outlook on ministry are strikingly similar. All three find power in relationships with the people around them, in advocating on their behalf and in partnering with effective agencies that can expand the scope of their ministries.
“Our goal is not to go into a community and tell it what is needed; our goal is to go into a community to be a partner and work alongside them through asset-based community development,” Jasper explained. “There’s no way I could do the work I do without my partners.”
For Clark and Ellard, the call to serve refugees from Burma began at Crescent Hill Baptist, a CBF-partner congregation, when the church partnered with CBF field personnel in Thailand working among the Palaung people who had immigrated from Burma to Thailand. That led to a connection with Duane and Marcia Binkley, missionaries serving through American Baptist Churches USA (and later CBF), and a Karen youth hostel where Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist sent their first mission team in 2001. Clark and Ellard were part of the team, forming their first relationships with the Karen people. That is when they began to feel God stirring.
“One morning during devotions with our host missionaries, one of them said, ‘We believe God is calling someone from this group to full-time missions service.’ And we thought we knew exactly who he was talking about—a young girl who was going to be a nurse,” Clark remembered. “It turned out to be us.”
They returned to Thailand with other mission teams in 2002 and 2004 before realizing that God was, in fact, calling them.
Following that call involved many twists and turns. The couple pursued many routes to serve ethnic minorities in Thailand and to use their skills in video production; but none of them panned out. Finally, in 2006, a CBF leader called with an interesting proposal for Clark and Ellard.
“Matt Norman from CBF Global Missions called us and said, ‘We have an idea for you to use your video skills and focus your work on immigrants and refugees,’” Ellard recalled.
It sounded perfect, as the couple had just completed a promotional video for Kentucky Refugee Ministries, a local resettlement agency. They would serve not in the jungles of Thailand, but work from their home in Louisville.
Unbeknownst to them, the U.S. government was about to begin the resettlement of 75,000 to 100,000 refugees from Burma over a five-year period. Suddenly, Louisville began receiving an influx of Karen refugees.
“Instead of moving to Thailand, we moved a mile-and-a-half closer to our church and the next thing you know, we were in ministry with Karen refugees,” Ellard shared.
Jasper experienced a similar journey as she moved from nonprofit and volunteer work to being a CBF field personnel.
“I had been doing this kind of work for many years, well before I got involved with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship,” Jasper said. “I started doing volunteer work in my community over 30 years ago because I had this desire to do this kind of work.”
Jasper started by volunteering with the Junior Women’s Club in Somerset, Ky., and the call grew from there.
“I’ve done just about every kind of work you can imagine for just about any organization you can imagine,” she added.
Jasper credits her serving with CBF to her son, Roger Jasper, pastor of Living Faith Baptist Fellowship in Elizabethtown, Ky., a CBF-partner congregation. At his suggestion, she looked into CBF as a possible way to expand the work she was already doing and, more importantly, to incorporate her faith into her work.
“My faith is a big part of why I do what I do; so, as the Lord continued to call me, I felt the call was to continue to do what I was doing but to do it for the Kingdom,” she said.
At the intersection of Jasper’s calling and the needs of south-central Kentucky, her ministry has thrived. She was commissioned in 2014 by CBF and, in 2016, was ordained to the ministry by Cornerstone Fellowship Church in Monticello, Ky., another CBF-partner congregation. Her calling continues to deepen as she attends Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, where she will graduate with a Master of Divinity degree, giving her the skills needed to address the difficult situations of those who come to her.
“Everyone I meet is going through some kind of crisis,” she said. “My training helps me to be able to handle that much better.”
From the foothills of Appalachia to the streets of Louisville, Kentucky is a state that faces great challenges and great opportunities for the people who call it home—from staggering generational poverty to navigating life in an entirely new country as a refugee. CBF field personnel like Jasper, Clark and Ellard strive to journey alongside those who are marginalized and hurting to share Christ’s love.
“God has put us in a place to make an impact,” Clark said.
Through advocacy, partnership and relationships, these three are working to make it in Kentucky as it is in Heaven.
This article appeared in the Winter 2019-20 issue of fellowship! magazine, the quarterly publication of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Read online here and subscribe for free to fellowship! and CBF’s weekly e-newsletter fellowship! weekly at www.cbf.net/subscribe.