A local Christian couple is headed for the hills. And they eventually want to take other people with them, all to bring God’s love to the hurting.

“It’s very hard,” said George Cockrell of Columbus. “Gospel goodbyes are never easy. But, if you’re all about building the kingdom, then gospel goodbyes are going to have to be part of what you do, whether that’s a small-group launch across town or a new church plant.”

He and his wife, Jodie Cockrell, ministry leaders in Columbus for the past decade, leave several positions locally Monday to be leaders of a poverty-oriented Christian outreach called Big Creek Missions 2. That’s in Leslie County in southeastern Kentucky near the Virginia border. The area of coal country was cited in a 2014 New York Times report as one of the hardest places to live in the United States.

Also, President Lyndon B. Johnson made the Appalachian area of Kentucky part of the face of his War on Poverty in 1964.

Story continues below gallery

The original Big Creek Missions in Bear Branch, Kentucky, has garnered financial and volunteer support from a range of Bartholomew County churches for years. The Cockrells aim to expand that, especially via weeks of cross-cultural volunteer work during summers and spring breaks, with the physical spread of Big Creek.

“I feel that Appalachia is our modern-day Samaria,” he said, referring to the Israeli Biblical city that many people looked down upon or avoided altogether.

George Cockrell, 39, has been a Columbus Christian School Bible teacher in recent years and is a former street preacher, while 40-year-old Jodie Cockrell has been a lay counselor for women. Together, they have worked with ministries such as the college evangelism organization Cru and have led a worship gathering known as Generational Fellowship meeting weekly at their home. Plus, they have worked during summers at Crossings camp in Bagdad, Kentucky.

Accompanied by their dog, Gatsby, the pair sat down recently to talk about their new adventure.

Why go to Appalachia?

Jodie: I have to first of all know well who I married. … He’s a wanderer.

So, my first duty is to serve the Lord, and secondly, to serve my husband.

And when he gets a calling or a notion about what the Lord is calling us to do, he is very gracious about praying through it, putting it out on the table and asking, “Jody, how would this work with us?”

He has a servant’s heart. That’s from the Lord. So, when we have done things in the past like selling our house and going out on the road in an RV, I have to remember that I married a missionary and I am a missionary.

And going is what we do.

George: There are people there who love their families and love their children. And they’re trying to beat generational poverty. And they’re trying to make it in a very, very hard place to live. And they just need a little help. So that’s part of what we want to do — help them.

But we also want to expose the people of Columbus and Bartholomew County to another part of the world. Four hours down the road is this whole different culture, with their own social morays, that is one of the most struggling communities in our country.

We want to help people by putting roofs and wheelchair ramps on their houses. We want to help in the schools, and to focus on bringing them the Gospel. But we want to expose the people here in Columbus to a segment of what the Bible would call the least of these.

Do you already have one idea to change people’s perceptions of the mountain people of eastern Kentucky?

George: I want to start something online called Souls of Appalachia. I want to get people’s portraits there and their stories and ask things such as, “Tell me about the happiest day of your life? And tell me about the saddest day of your life? And then we’ll paste those interviews together and put it out there to literally put a face on Appalachia and the mission, so people can see it’s not like some presuppositions of hillbillies.

What about the area groups that already have been to the original Big Creek outpost?

George: Every group that I have taken down to Kentucky has been dramatically changed. That includes their view of affluence, their view of happiness and joy amid poverty, their view of the Lord’s provision. For them, it has been the best experience. And I think it’s the best value for missions at a cost of $29 per person a day (including meals and lodging).

What’s one of your early goals for Big Creek Missions 2?

George: I would like to see our facility, at least half the weeks of the year, at full volunteer capacity (50 people weekly). And we know that donations are another part of the oil that keeps the engine running. But we want to be a blessing to the people of Appalachia.

How do you bring the promise of the Gospel to such hurting people?

George: Jesus doesn’t promise to take away trials. In fact, he promises that we will experience trials, right? But we believe that he gives strength to persevere. And he promises that all things work for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose. I believe that God is faithful.

How you can help

You can financially support George and Jodie Cockrell’s part of the nonprofit Big Creek Missions 2 Christian outreach in Appalachia at bigcreekmissions.com. Include a note near the top of the online form designating the Cockrells as recipients.

You can volunteer at Big Creek by clicking on Anytime Missions and filling out the online form. The Cockrells especially are recruiting area groups to travel the four-hour distance to help in weekly increments.

Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at bblair@therepublic.com or 812-379-5672.