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Prayer, Harlan County–style

Part 2: At day’s end, students join a unique congregation


Click on the slide show above to learn more about one of this year’s ASB trips.

This spring break, hundreds of Boston University students once again chose to make a difference, volunteering in disaster zones and troubled communities across the country, joining Alternative Spring Breaks trips organized by BU’s Community Service Center.

Last year, BU Today’s Vicky Waltz chaperoned students who reached Dupree, S.D., to work with Native American children at a Sioux YMCA. This year, she revisited her role, in a very different part of the country:

Cranks Holiness Church in Harlan County, Kentucky, has only 13 members, but every Monday, Friday, and Saturday night, the small chapel rings with dozens of voices raised in song.

Ministered by retired coal miner Brother James Fee, the church is a place of worship for volunteers from Cranks Creek Survival Center, a nonprofit organization founded in 1977 by Becky and Bobby Simpson. On any given week, the church — hardly bigger than a double-wide trailer — has upwards of 50 visitors.

Mining company executives maintain that coal is still king in Harlan County, but the members of Cranks Holiness Church disagree. There’s only one king in town, and His name is Jesus Christ. “If you want to get to heaven, the only way is through Jesus, our Lord and Savior,” Fee says.

On a balmy spring evening in March, 11 Boston University student volunteers gather in the sanctuary. The group had spent half the day constructing a roof over the church’s outdoor wheelchair ramp, as well as enclosing a bathroom in the back of the building. By seven o’clock they are weary but eager to meet the church’s congregation.

“We met Brother James and his wife at the supermarket on our first day in Kentucky,” recalls Ali Halprin (CAS’11). “When they found out we were working at Cranks Creek Survival Center, they invited us to their church. The next day we learned that this was our work site, so coming here for service is extra-special.”

Halprin, who is Jewish and from the Bronx, says she hesitated before attending services. “I was worried that I would stand out,” she says, “but everyone was warm and welcoming.”

Fee stands behind the pulpit, in front of three black-velvet paintings of Jesus and a copy of the Ten Commandments. “Are there any aspiring preachers here tonight?” he asks. “We always invite anyone who has the calling to come up and preach for us.”

Several moments later, members of the congregation are kneeling, their heads in their hands, handkerchiefs clutched tightly in their fists, praying aloud. As minutes pass, the gentle murmurs intensify until members are all but shouting prayers to the heavens. Their supplications end just as quickly as they began, and three men take up guitars and begin a rousing rendition of the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.”

After several songs, music major Angela Spignese (CFA’12) takes the microphone and sings an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace” while members of the congregation hum along. “To me, music and singing are prayers in and of themselves,” she says. “So I felt right at home.” The music lasts nearly 90 minutes, and almost every member of the congregation takes up the microphone at least once.

Caroline Whitehead (CAS’11) says the service was very different from those she attends in a Lutheran church in an affluent Chicago suburb. “I think that when you don’t have everything you want or need in this life, you want to think that there’s something better coming up in the afterlife,” she says. “So naturally, faith is very important to many of the people we met here.”

“They don’t have a lot of material wealth,” Halprin says, “so their faith completely dictates their lifestyle, and that’s something that I found to be really special.”

To read part one of this year’s ABS trip series, click here.

Read more Alternative Spring Break stories.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.


4 Comments on Prayer, Harlan County–style

  • Anonymous on 03.25.2009 at 9:45 am

    I admire your unselfish willingness to give up your Spring Break to go help out people from what seems to be a small, rural church with limited resources! Thank you for sharing such fulfilling experiences, especially for your courage to talk about the impact these experiences had in your own lives in this date and age when people are ashamed to mention anything that has to do with God or religion. Keep up such great work and thank you!

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 9:32 am

    It’s good to know that not all college students party on spring break. Very interesting article, I enjoyed learning about how a small church can make a big difference in a lot of lives.

  • Dean Emerita Wilma Peebles-Wilkins on 03.26.2009 at 12:40 pm

    I so enjoyed the slide shows on Harlan County and was pleased to see diverse volunteer participation and acceptance in Eastern Kentucky. My first teaching job in 1976 was at Eastern Kentucky U., and the slides brought back many memories.
    –Dean Emerita Wilma Peebles-Wilkins

  • Anonymous on 03.26.2009 at 4:25 pm

    Excellent article, slide show

    I enjoyed students’ insight into the how religion plays such a prominent role is people’s lives – I also really liked the choice of music. Wish I could have heard the BU student singing “Amazing Grace”! Thanks.

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