Firewood for the Needy
A Kingsport church leads a "woodcutting work camp" to keep Native Americans in North Carolina warm.
By Annette Bender
CHEROKEE, N.C. Dodie has two big sausage biscuits on his dashboard, but he doesn't seem interested in eating them. He's more interested in talking about his work as he drives up and down these winding mountain roads with a truckload of wood.
Dodie Crowe, 32, works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He cuts and delivers firewood to help keep needy Native Americans warm through the winter.
Every fall, a group led by First Broad Street United Methodist Church comes to help Dodie. For the past 10 years, volunteers from the Kingsport District church have gathered at Cherokee United Methodist Church. Their mission is to cut and stack enough wood to sustain Dodie's 135 customers for several weeks, but also to stock enough wood for Cherokee UMC to distribute to needy people in the community.
According to Danny Howe, First Broad Street missions director, the "Woodcutting Work Camp" was conceived when college students from First Broad Street went to Cherokee on a home-repair mission trip in May 1992.
"Somehow we learned from the pastor at Cherokee Church about the need to get wood out to people," Howe said.
That fall, a crew from First Broad Street returned to Cherokee. They began working with the local tribal council to get lumber from clear-cut forest areas, cutting it up for firewood.
Over the years, First Broad Street became the organizer of a week-long mission trip involving other churches. "Word gets out, and we also made contacts on other mission trips," Howe said.
On the work camp's 10th anniversary in November 2002, about 75 workers showed up throughout the week to cut and stack wood. Other than First Broad Street, participating Holston congregations included St. Mark, Colonial Heights and Mountain View United Methodist churches, all of Kingsport District. United Methodists have also come from churches in the Tennessee, South Carolina, Western North Carolina, and Red Bird Missionary Conferences. Several participants have come from outside the denomination, Howe said.
Dodie's finally ready to tackle those sausage biscuits. He's a big Cherokee man with a ponytail, going coatless when everyone else is bundled up.
Between bites, Dodie tells how much he appreciates the annual visit from First Broad Street's crew. Just last night, he says, he went to eat with some of the volunteers at a steakhouse.
"They're good people," he says. "I wish they would come over when they didn't have to bust wood."
With the firewood prepared by volunteers this week, Dodie estimates he'll have enough to keep his mostly elderly customers warm for two months. They receive the wood free, whenever they need it. Many still use woodburning stoves because gas is expensive, he explains.
"Now that we're ahead, the trick is to stay ahead," says Dodie. He will try to keep the wood piled high after the church volunteers leave, but he's the only one on the job and sometimes he works nights and weekends to keep up.
Using chainsaws and hydraulic wood splitters with sawdust flying, the church volunteers admit that woodcutting is grueling work. ("I'm tired, stiff and sore," said Mountain View's Kirk Lowe.) The fellowship is what keeps them coming back, they say.
Each work camp participant pays $125 to go on the mission trip, lodging at Cherokee UMC, in a nearby bunkhouse, or in donated hotel rooms. It helps that the food is good and plentiful. This past year, St. Mark members Mary Watterson, Ruth Russell and Leola Campbell wowed the crowd with fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, banana pudding and other home cooking.
Volunteers also like their rocking-chair time around an expansive fireplace in Cherokee UMC's fellowship hall. Howe makes sure firewood is always available for devotions or just relaxing together in the evening.
"There's a lot of godly stuff that goes on there," he says of the fireplace. "It's kind of its own altar."
Pointing out his own relatives' houses along the way, Dodie drives up another steep hill before pulling up at a small house. This is the home of a man who "chiefs" in town, he explains. By that, Dodie means the man dresses up like a Native American chief and lets tourists take his photo for tips.
The man and his wife come out to the porch to watch Dodie unload the wood. They don't say anything. The man just flicks his cigarette, signs Dodie's clipboard and waves after the wood is dumped alongside the porch steps.
Sometimes the church volunteers deliver wood and get to know the recipients, rather than spending all their time at the wood splitter. The first time First Broad Street came to Cherokee, they cut 120 pickup-truck loads of wood. Within five years, they were producing 400 truckloads per trip.
At the time, the high volume of wood sent up a warning flag for Howe.
"Our goal is not so much task-oriented, but to try to get folks to sit at the table with people they wouldn't ordinarily be sitting with," he says. "I didn't want to break their spirit, but we had to get past that euphoric stage where we're patting ourselves on the back, seeing if we could do more and more every year. It's not just the end product but the process that's important."
It took time, Howe says, but the volunteers now seem to understand. Sometimes they become so close, it's hard to say good-bye. First Broad Street's assistant missions director, Connie Taylor, wiped tears from her eyes when two woodcutting veterans from Milan, Tenn., left a day early.
"It's like all mission trips," notes First Broad Street's Bob Edmisten. "The woodcutting is the vehicle you're riding in, but it's not where you're going."
"I just love the people," says First Broad Street's Keith Clanin, "and I love working for Jesus."