LYNCH, Ky. – A century ago, the U.S. Steel Corporation bought 19,000 acres in around the town of Lynch to open a coal mining operation and community that fueled the industrial revolution across the country.
A century later, there’s a new fuel, or as the locals call it, a revival, occurring in Lynch.
The small Harlan County community with a population of 694 is part of a transformation that is gaining global attention.
Lonnie and Belinda Riley are at the forefront of that transformation. They are pastors and are quite humble when they talk of the miraculous work taking place in their community. In 1997, Belinda’s mother passed away and the following year, Lonnie, who grew up in neighboring Perry County, and Belinda made their way back to Lynch to settle her estate.
“When I would come back to visit [mom], I could see the hopelessness,” Belinda recalled. “So many people had left the region, and those who stayed were faced with so many challenges.”
That was 1998. Shortly after returning home to Mississippi, where the Rileys pastored a church, they felt in their spirit that it was time to go home. It was a decision some didn’t understand. After all, Lonnie and Belinda were pastors of a large and affluent church in the suburbs of Memphis, Tenn.
“I remember sitting at the table with Belinda with a blank sheet of paper and saying, ‘God, this is our plan. Whatever you place on this paper, we will do,’” said Lonnie. “Our approach has – and always will be – to use the gospel to change the mindset of our community. The Lord gave me very simple and straight-forward directions: to help people and to share Jesus.”
When the Rileys arrived in Lynch, the locals were skeptical. Lonnie remembers a conversation about a person telling him the last one out of town turns out the lights.
“People were amazed we were moving in to Lynch,” he recalled. “So many people told us everyone was wanting to move away. I remember one man telling me that ‘the last one out of town should turn out the lights.’ I responded, ‘If I could turn out the lights for God, that would be an honor.’”
The evolution of what is now Meridzo Ministries happened slowly, but as Lonnie is quick to remind: “It was all in God’s time.”
They started meeting basic needs doing small home repair work and operating a food pantry. The vision the Rileys had was a comprehensive ministry that met needs of people spiritually and physically.
Fast-forward some two decades later, it is coming to past.
“I didn’t know anyone, but God knew everyone and placed them in our path,” said Lonnie when talking about the regional footprint of Meridzo Ministries. “When God would give us a vision, he placed the people and the resources in our way to obtain it.”
That approach has led to the creation of the Lamp House Coffee Shop, located across the road from the Portal 31 Exhibition Coal Mine in Lynch. The shop serves coffee, pastries and sandwiches.
It also roasts its own Coal Miner blend coffee. They now own the former hospital in Lynch, which they have renovated into 89 rooms on four floors to house the more than 4,000 volunteers that work in the town annually.
The Southeast College Education Foundation, Inc. gave the Bath House complex to the ministry and it is currently home to the Meridzo Ministry Agribusiness organization, which is home to a mushroom farm and fodder facility. The Bath House was opened in 1920 by U.S. Steel.
The mushroom farm grows four types of shiitake mushrooms and the fodder facility is partnering with University of Kentucky and Morehead State University to create a high protein hay that can be beneficial to the equine industry. Plans are underway to build a dulcimer factory, candle-making facility, and candle store at the Bath House. The top floor is also home to furnished apartments.
Other buildings and businesses operated by the ministry include the Black Mountain Exchange, a gas and convenience store in Lynch, and the Community Christian Center, or C3 as the locals call it. The church is also home to dental and medical clinics throughout the year.
Meridzo Ministries have between 40-50 employees at any given time, and their ministry has expanded into Letcher, Floyd and Pulaski counties. In neighboring Letcher County, the ministry operates the Stables at Creekside Glen, Shekinah Village Resort and Youth Camp, and the Calvary Campus. In Floyd County, they have the Maytown Center, and they recently opened Heaven’s Door Chapel at the Lake Cumberland Resort.
“So many people thought it was the end of Lynch,” said Lonnie. “I believe it is only the beginning.”
Lonnie and Belinda said organizations, like Shaping Our Appalachian Region, Inc. (SOAR), have provided a unified and united vision of transformation for the region.
“The thing that sets SOAR apart from other organizations is that they listened to the people,” said Lonnie. “SOAR sought after the input of people, and they drafted that into a plan for the future. We have bought into that plan, and know that SOAR is doing some incredible work.”