Above, community prayer meeting in Lynch, Kentucky, in 1999.
November 2017 – The loud, shrill whistle explodes through the valley, echoing off the rocks and towering mountains. Every woman in town shudders at the ominous sound and falls to her knees.
“Dear God, protect my husband,” one prays.
A tiny hand finds its way into her clenched palms.
“Please, please bring my daddy home, Jesus,” a child’s soft voice pleads.
From 1917 to 1984, it was a common scene in the coal mining town.
Challenge for the present
Even the youngest child in Lynch, Kentucky, understood that disaster and death were tied to the whistle’s blast. That shrill cry and countless prayers of Lynch mothers, wives, and children became as one over the decades, woven together by seams of black coal spider-webbing deep inside Black Mountain.
In 1999, with the old mining whistle long silent, a different sound, a heart cry, went out – a call to prayer for the resurrection of a town. The men and women who issued that call were desperate to bring their valley back to life with new residents, new jobs, and renewed hope.
One prayer warrior, Mrs. Dottie Russell (“Miss Dottie”), has lived at the foot of Black Mountain for 83 years. She witnessed her once booming hometown dwindle from more than 10,000 residents in the 1930s to fewer than 700 last year. She watched a way of life disappear as the mining industry slowly ground to a halt in the decades after World War II.
“Lynch was a beautiful place back then,” Miss Dottie remembered, as she gave AFA Journal a tour. “It was alive and full, with people out and about on every street. Neighbors visiting one another, while their kids were running and playing everywhere. We pray to see it like that again.“
Miss Dottie’s love for her hometown was evident and real, almost palpable – and amazing considering the heartache she has endured there. Her dad lost his leg in a mining accident when she was only 12. Soon after that, her mother died, leaving young Dottie to care for her dad and four younger siblings.
“They (U. S. Steel) let my dad stay on and work at the mine,” she said. “He took care of the other miners’ lamps, and that kept us fed.”
Life in Lynch has never been easy for Miss Dottie as the daughter and wife of coal miners. She’s been widowed now for several years. Yet, her hardships have strengthened her faith with more determination to pray for the town she loves.
Chronicle of the past
Located in Harlan County, Lynch was founded in 1917 by the U.S. Steel Corporation for the purpose of mining coal from the tallest peak in Kentucky. U.S. Steel designed Lynch from the ground up, sparing no expense. In fact, Lynch residents from the 1920s through World War II lived in one of the most progressive communities in America.
U.S. Steel recruited workers straight from Ellis Island, including Italian stonemasons who built gorgeous sandstone buildings, several of which still survive in historic Lynch. Their families were provided new homes powered by electricity, a luxury virtually unheard of in rural America at the time.
The company provided other amenities for workers as well – a modern hospital, renowned physicians, a huge commissary, outstanding schools, theaters, a luxury hotel, a skating rink, a semi-pro baseball team, tennis courts, and most importantly, an immediate sense of community.
That community consisted of street after street filled with people from many nationalities, races, and religions who brought their cultures, their languages, and their foods to create the melting pot of pre-war Lynch.
Mike O’Bradovich, a lifelong, first generation resident of Lynch, spoke to AFAJ about that melting pot with obvious pride. He reminisced about the diversity of friends he grew up with in Lynch and the richness they added to his childhood.
“They say people came from over 37 different countries to work the coal mines of Lynch,” said Mike. “Why, I can count over 10 languages spoken in my neighborhood alone.”
He reeled off a dozen European surnames, offering details and stories of those old friends. He described aromas of new foods cooked in his childhood neighborhood – Italian, Polish, and his mom’s German delicacies.
“My mom met my dad here on a visit to Lynch. He came from a place in Yugoslavia called Montenegro,” explained Mike. “Montenegro means Black Mountain. So, my dad was born in Black Mountain, he came to America to live at Black Mountain, and he spent his life mining Black Mountain.”
Mike’s history lesson began with a trip to Portal 31 (portal31.org), Lynch’s virtual museum tour into one of America's most productive mines. This long abandoned mine set a 1923 world record, mining 12,820 tons of coal in one nine-hour shift.
Cody Hall, a 30-year-old, lifelong resident of Lynch, led the museum tour. His knowledge of mining and his pride in Lynch were astounding.
Choice for the future
“This kind of tourism job is about all we have now in Lynch,” Cody stated. “There's just not much else for younger people here.”
However, Cody’s mom, Darlene Hall, is beginning to see that grim reality change through prayer. And for as long as people in Lynch can remember, she has prayed and believed that God would revive Lynch.
“When God answers our prayers for Lynch, it’s going to be so big and so miraculous that people will know it was His doing,” declared Darlene. “They won’t be able to say it was anything but God and God alone.”
For Darlene, prayer is a way of life. She has seen doctors astonished when God answered her prayers for her husband’s healing after a bacterial infection destroyed his body with gangrene.
God also astounded family, friends, and doctors when He revived Darlene’s body after a debilitating stroke. She had to learn to walk and talk again, and still struggles with certain tasks, but her faith is unwavering.
Darlene understands that prayers, a century of them, are what holds Lynch together.
“Lots of little towns in America need help. Like us, those folks just want jobs and a way to make a living for their families,” exclaimed Darlene. “We don’t want a handout; we want to work. That’s what gives people self-respect and hope.”
Darlene’s sentiments ring true to Dottie Russell, Mike O’Bradovich, and many other Lynch residents. All speak with one resolute faith in all that is possible for their Black Mountain valley.
“God keeps speaking to my heart that He has great joy ahead for us, a time of rejoicing,” Darlene concluded. “And I believe Him. So, I’m just waiting on Him to open the floodgate to our answered prayers.”
It’s Only Cookie Dough chronicles the prayer-centered revitalization of Lynch, Kentucky.
The film focuses on the work of Lonnie and Belinda Riley who returned to Lynch to help revitalize his hometown.
With empathy and dignity, It’s Only Cookie Dough shows how spiritual and economic revival has come to Lynch through prayer.
It’s Only Cookie Dough was produced by Sentinel Group. Through similarly themed films, Sentinel has helped communities across America discover Christ’s transforming power.
Sentinel also offers church groups opportunities to serve these communities. To learn more or to preview It’s Only Cookie Dough and other films, go to sentinelgroup.org.