By Grayson Hester
CBF field personnel need not travel around the world to feel a world away.
Scarlette Jasper, commissioned by CBF in 2014, serves as a rural poverty advocate for the Together for Hope Rural Poverty Initiative in south-central/southeastern Kentucky and portions of East Tennessee.
She’s been there for 35 years, so she knows the territory well. She knows well, too, the isolation that can come with it.
“I may not be in another country, but I serve in some areas where I am the only CBF presence,” Jasper said. “There are no CBF congregations in most of the counties I serve. I am the CBF presence, just as many of our field personnel that serve internationally.”
These Appalachian regions—rural, predominantly white, overwhelmingly working-class—are characterized by their rolling hills as much as they are characterized by generational poverty. And, as such, they experience a sense of separateness not just from CBF, but the rest of the country. The need, it goes without saying, is great.
“The foundational aspects of my ministry are financial literacy and nutrition education,” Jasper said. “I end up working in a lot of areas that overlap, such as with those experiencing homelessness, job insecurity, and food insecurity. And, in all these ministry areas, I see this work as a ‘bearing witness to Jesus Christ’ ministry.”
While Jasper is undoubtedly called to and adept at the work she does, addressing nearly every aspect of poverty from the day-to-day ramifications to the systemic sources, she is not immune to the spiritual toll such work can take, especially as it did in 2020.
That’s where the Encourager Church program comes in. Jasper receives covenantal support from five CBF congregations, including First Baptist Church of Corbin, Kentucky, where she’s the missionary-in-residence, and Living Faith Baptist Fellowship, Elizabethtown, Ky., which is pastored by none other than her son. This congregation is the church that helped commission her as a field personnel.
To be sure, any church can lend support to field personnel. But Encourager Churches do so in a committed, documented and, as stated above, covenantal way. They agree to walk alongside their designated field personnel, lending financial aid, prayer, programmatic partnership and, true to the program’s name, encouragement.
“The ‘encourager’ part of this is very vital,” Jasper said. “I will get a voicemail or a card or an email, or even a text, occasionally, out-of-the-blue, saying, ‘We’re thinking about you today and praying for you in your ministry, you and your family.’”
As is so often the case with these covenantal things, these communications often arrive at just the right time. Jasper shared a story of serving a person experiencing chronic homelessness and the concomitant mental illnesses that often accompany it. After years of trying to help, to little avail, and doing so in the middle of a pandemic, she had just about reached her wit’s end.
But then, as if on cue, she received a voicemail. The pastor of one of her Encourager Churches had simply reached out to say, “Hey, I think you’re an awesome person.” And that changed everything.
“Often, communication brings me to tears. I get one of those when I need it the most. It lets you know that the Holy Spirit is working in these relationships,” she said. “That person may not know that I’m having a stressful day, or that something’s going on that I need prayer for.”
She said that she still, to this day, listens to that voicemail when she needs a pick-me-up.
The relationships she has built with CBF and the Encourager Churches are just that—relationships.
The approach Jasper takes to her ministry is asset-based community development, prioritizing serving “with” and “alongside,” as opposed to “giving to” or “lording over.” In short, it acknowledges that we, in whatever privileges we find ourselves, have just as much to receive from others as we have to give them.
The Encourager Church operates similarly and, as such, is as much a benefit to the encourager as it is the encouraged. “We have a great relationship working together,” said Alex Lockridge, senior pastor of FBC Corbin. “It has brought everyone into the story of Christ’s mission work here in Corbin and across southeastern Kentucky. It has helped people see the vision that God has for this church as a missional church.”
Although FBC Corbin’s relationship with Jasper has only been official for several months, the benefits, both congregational and spiritual, have been enormous. Jasper’s systemic approach to poverty has helped FBC Corbin move beyond what Lockridge calls “band-aid solutions” and into a sense of “spiritual vibrancy.” And FBC Corbin’s Encourager Church relationship, including offering Jasper office space, has empowered her to continue doing her work.
“I want to go out of my way to sing Scarlette’s praises. She is one of a kind and inspiring to work with,” Lockridge said. “If CBF itself had about 200 more Scarlettes, there may not be any more work left to do. She’s that good at what she does.”
Earned as that praise may be, however, you won’t hear it from Jasper herself. For 35 years, she has done what she’s done simply because she believes that strongly in helping people, in being the presence of Christ to a hurting, unjust world.
And the Encouragers are then, in turn, the presence of Christ to her. In an isolated, sometimes lonely setting, that can make all the difference.
“I can’t do what I do without my Encourager Churches and my other ministry supporters and partners. I’m one person,” Jasper said. “The Lord has called us to be in covenant together. It’s one reason we call it that. We’re in this together. We’re called to be in fellowship with one another.”
Learn more about CBF’s Encourager Church initiative and how you and your congregation can get involved at www.cbf.net/encourager-church.