BISHOP, Va. – The Rev. Daniel Bradley often gets up in the morning knowing there’s less than $100 left in the church banking account, and the next insurance payment could finally crush Alexander Memorial United Methodist.
But on Thursdays, the pastor and his little band of volunteers heed no mind to the struggles. They’re going full speed ahead to get the next hot meal out to 120 waiting neighbors.
“We’ve got kids who will immediately grab this food and sit down on the porch and start eating,” says Bradley, amid the frying sausage and baking biscuits. “It’s like Christmas to them.”
In Bishop, a former coal-mining community, hunger is not only a symptom of poverty but often addiction, too. When Pastor Bradley is not working on the food ministry known as the “Bread of Life,” he’s worrying about it, says his district superintendent.
“It’s become apparent to me this church cannot sustain itself without help. There’s not enough money in the area to support that church,” says the Rev. Jane Taylor, Clinch Mountain District superintendent in the Holston Conference.
Although other communities in Tazewell County also struggle with poverty and addiction, the Bishop community, which straddles the Virginia and West Virginia line, has the added disadvantage of geographic isolation, residents say.
To get to any job, store, school, or doctor’s office, people in Bishop have to drive at least 45 minutes across mountain ranges in every direction, regardless if they own vehicles. The distance keeps many residents at home, whatever their needs, says Bradley.
That doesn't stop the United Methodists in town from trying to feed their neighbors. Early this year, Alexander Memorial served about 40 free meals every Thursday night in the fellowship hall. When concern about spreading COVID-19 necessitated converting the fellowship meals to doorstep-delivery meals, the number of hungry people discovered by church volunteers increased every week.
Bradley said he knew the numbers would rise, especially as the pandemic progressed. “When we went to delivering, I said, ‘Guys, you might as well get ready because it’s going to grow,’” the pastor told his volunteer team.
On Sept. 10, they served 122 people.
“Even though we’re small in numbers, we’re still doing God’s work,” says Lisa Duncan, one of five regular volunteers. Her family recently donated a hog to provide pork chops, ham and sausage for five Thursdays of meals. “We’re the only church they’re going to see.”
Alexander Memorial is the only church in Bishop, with the exception of an even smaller Baptist church across the state line which has been inactive during the pandemic. “Daniel is the community pastor, even for people who don’t go to church," Taylor said.
When Bradley was appointed to Alexander Memorial three years ago, the church had five in average worship attendance. Before the pandemic caused Holston Conference to suspend in-person worship in March 2020, Alexander Memorial was hosting 30 regular worshippers. Estimated population in Bishop, Virginia, is less than 500.
Residents come to the parsonage at all hours of the day and night, Bradley says, asking for rides to the hospital, assistance with paying bills, repairs for their homes, and food. Bradley is a bi-vocational local pastor who works 40 hours a week as a driver for a social services agency in addition to pastoring three churches.
“My wife and I have taken food from our refrigerator to give to people because they’re hungry,” he said. “I don’t know that we’re doing more than anyone else would do, when you’re coming face to face with it every day.”
Some of the hunger stories are horrific, Bradley says, involving drug overdoses, house fires, neglected children. Other families have just done their best to survive since area coal mines closed in 1982 and a devastating flood wracked the community in 2001.
“They keep to themselves so much,” says Duncan, who remembers happier days for her neighbors while growing up in Bishop. “They used to sit on the porch, but now they seem to shield themselves.”
A cooked meal delivered by smiling church members seems to make a difference, Duncan said. “It’s such a blessing to see them light up. They like that friendly face and an ear to listen.”
The meals depend on what’s donated or financially feasible: Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. Pinto beans and cornbread. Spaghetti. On Sept. 10, the team served chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese.
“We can’t give them the best food in the world as far as quality, but we try to give them enough to fill their stomachs,” Bradley said.
Some donations come from the Elk Garden Community School Ministry, where the Rev. Brooke Atchley serves as a United Methodist Church and Community Worker (missionary). Elk Garden is located in Rosedale, Virginia, about 45 minutes away from Bishop.
“Just recently, we had three skids of hams donated to us, and we shared some with Daniel,” said Atchley. “In all of the places I’ve served and had contact with, that is probably the place with the least hope. It’s not that people don’t value the church or what the church is doing, but when everyone in the community is just scrimping to keep the lights on ...”
Other donations have come from Dailey’s Chapel United Methodist Church in North Tazewell, Virginia, and from Middlebrook Pike United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“When Jane [Taylor] told me about this church and Daniel, it troubled my heart,” said Martha Jean Bratton, a Middlebrook Pike member. “I said, ‘I can’t do a lot about what is happening in the world, but I can get this man some beans.’”
Bradley and his team are so busy trying to keep the food coming and the bills paid, they don’t have a lot of time for other ministries. Even so, the pastor began offering online worship when the pandemic struck and created an online weekly puppet show for local children who miss coming to church. He often writes the puppet scripts during his driving job, while waiting on his clients undergoing dialysis.
In addition to pastoring Alexander Memorial, Bradley also leads Brown’s Chapel United Methodist Church and Mt. Hermon United Methodist Church. He has a vision of beginning a Celebrate Recovery (addiction) ministry and converting Brown’s Chapel into a mission center, where incoming teams could stay while providing meals and Vacation Bible School for the community.
“This is such a mission field,” Taylor said. “There’s so much you could do here for the last, least and lost, if we could find some sources of funding.”
“These people have been forgotten here,” Bradley says. “They’re really good people, but some of them are hooked on bad things. They like to know they’re important. And we are overwhelmed because it takes so much to feed so many.
"It sounds like we’re begging, and we are.”
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For more information about Alexander Memorial UMC, contact the Clinch Mountain District at firstname.lastname@example.org. To give online to Alexander Memorial (located in the Clinch Mountain District), visit Holston.org. Or, write a check made out to "Alexander Memorial UMC" and mail to: Clinch Mountain District, P.O. Box 263, Abingdon, VA 24212-0263.
Holston Conference includes 853 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.