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The Man Who Moved a Mountain

October 18, 2016
approachingbuffalomountainresized

Approaching southern Virginia mountains.

The Man Who Moved a Mountain

My friends at church were talking about a book—a person really, who they were sure I would love reading about. The man was a mountain pastor named Bob Childress and the book is called The Man Who Moved a Mountain, by Richard C. Davids, (Fortress Press, 1970).

The book is staggering in its opening chapters as it describes the bloody life on and around Buffalo Mountain in southern Virginia, not far from 1-81 and I-77 which my husband and I travel frequently to visit our family in North Carolina. If you think the old West was wild as portrayed in movies and on TV, Buffalo Mountain was just as wild or worse: men fighting and drawing guns slick and quick, just because they didn’t have anything any better to do. “The Waltons” or “Andy Griffith” it was not.

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Near Hillsville, Va.

Usually we stop near Hillsville, Va., for a quick bathroom break or cheap gas, about 12-15 miles from the mountain and five miles west of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The book quickly hooked me, as powerfully as the moonshine that a few still spread through the hollows surrounding the Buffalo.

Writer Richard Davids uses shorthand like that to refer to Buffalo, sometimes treating it like a place, a lifestyle, a culture—much more than a single mountain.

Reverend Bob Childress was a young fellow who grew up tough and fighting and drinking like his family and neighbors until God got a hold of him. The good Lord used Bob to charismatically bring many to the kind of faith Jesus talked about in Matthew 17:20, a faith that can move mountains.

The religion that these folks practiced seemed to teach them (falsely) that if someone died in a gun fight or brawl, well, it was his time to go and nothing could be done about it. That’s just the way it was. God’s timing. Their fatalism contributed to the defeatist spirit of those who knew no other way of life.

But something stirred young tough Bob to return to the education he abandoned after a young teacher dearly loved moved away. Something egged him to want to be a preacher—get a seminary degree no less, after he was already married and supporting five children. He faced tremendous odds just getting into seminary without a high school diploma. The Presbytery (a higher ruling body than the local congregation) discouraged him but eventually through their support and years down the road, Childress was a star pastor preaching throughout the southeast sharing tales of God’s movement in and around the Buffalo. Everyone loved him.

Again I was struck with how some stories are hard to swallow: if it were fiction, it would be critiqued for not being realistic.

One paragraph was especially telling—and chilling. “Killing served as more than a final act of justice or safety, however. Killings provided the excitement—almost the entertainment—that lent savor to the dreary struggle of existence. Tales of gunfights were told and retold wherever men met” (p. 7). Writer Davids goes on to tell the details of some of the gorier stories he heard from the older mountaineers as he lived among them to gather stories for this partial biography. I’ll spare you the imagery, it’s as R-rated for violence as it comes. Another line says the people of Buffalo Mountan lived at war with one another: “Killing was a habit of generations. To argue was womanish. A buffalo boy didn’t become a man until he came to discard words for action,” (p.8).

The earliest memory of Bob Childress himself was getting drunk at not quite three. .. “It was brandy that made life bearable,” (p. 11) Davids writes. You can read most of the book right on Google Books.

But the book became alive for me when I was talking to a fellow Lion club member, Mary Beth. I had vaguely recalled from earlier conversation that she hailed originally from the Hillsville area. So I asked her if she’d read the book about her home area. Her face lit up and I couldn’t finish saying the title before she filled in, “Oh, The Man Who Moved a Mountain? and I responded, “yes, I’m reading it!”

Mary Beth quickly added, “Bob Childress was one of the pastors who married my parents!” Suddenly the book became very real. “They had two pastors for the ceremony because my Dad said he had to have Bob Childress do his wedding.”

That told me how truly magnetic, loved and effective pastor Childress was in his ministry. Over the years of following God’s call, and up until he had to cut back for health reasons from his speaking and preaching travels, Childress spurred improvement and change. Some of the changes came partially just because of the revolutionary  betterments of the 20th century, but also undeniably how he embraced and egged the people on to education (building the area’s first school), and working at infrastructure like roads and bridges to end the extreme isolation. He was known also for building up churches (both the people and lovely stone edifices), and bravely pushing mountain men to come to those churches, giving up moonshine (in spite of it being their livelihood and the drink as common as orange juice for breakfast).

It is truly an amazing story or God’s leading and a man’s following—supported, as usual, by a strong faithful wife and loving family.

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Blue Ridge Mountains, further up in the Shenandoah Valley.

***

What mentor, pastor, or even a dear friend would you place in the category of Pastor Childress? Who not only changed your life or life of faith–but also brought signficant change to a community? I’d love to add to this honor roll of great change agents for God.

***

This book reminded me of those written by southern Virginia Radford professor emeritus Peggy Shifflett, reviewed earlier on my blog:

How one woman lost her label arriving at school on a different bus
Old Time Religion in Hopkins Gap

***

I have not yet managed to snag an image of Buffalo Mountain but you can easily google “Buffalo Mountain Images” to get an idea of why they called the massave sloping shape of the mountain, “Buffalo.” Or look at one of several YouTube amatuer videos: https://youtu.be/72YdGmJtwVo

***

My memoir of living in the nearby hills of Eastern Kentucky for one year can be found as a used book on Amazon, On Troublesome Creek, Herald Press, 1983.

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2 Comments
  1. Many pastors and close relatives would fit the bill of my strong mentors. Because of the election, I showcased Susan B. Anthony this past week. She obviously wouldn’t be classified as my mentor, but she is a force for change, a model I try in my own way to emulate.

    Great post, Melodie!

  2. I like the way you reframed this: a force for change. At some point I do think you’d enjoy reading this book too. There are a lot of direction one could go with a critique–like it helps me understand the gun culture that is still out there.

    Thanks for popping in here with your bright affirmations.

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