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Firewood ministry warms hearts, homes in mountains


Dawnena Byington and her son, Nicholas, 17, help operate the hydraulic wood
splitter in a field next to Cherokee (N.C.) United Methodist Church.
UMNS photos by Heidi Robinson.

By Heidi Robinson*
Jan. 28, 2008 | CHEROKEE, N.C. (UMNS)

The morning sun hadn’t quite reached the valley near Cherokee, but the mechanical whine of a chainsaw signaled the start of an important day.


Una Harley, a member of the Choctaw Nation, carries a log to the hydraulic splitter.
    

Bundled up against 39-degree mountain air, 40 volunteers armed with axes, chainsaws and a hydraulic splitter spread out in the field next to Cherokee United Methodist Church. By the end of the week, the enormous stack of fallen logs piled more than five feet high will become winter fuel to warm the homes of families living on Cherokee land.

"It might take a family six loads of wood to make it through an entire winter, if they burn a lot," says volunteer Cloyd Clipse, from Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church near Kingsport, Tenn. Clipse uses a chainsaw to cut huge rounds from the pile of logs. "A lot of folks have to choose between buying medicine, food or firewood. We all have to do what we can because it’s by the grace of God that we can help."

This is the15th year that volunteers have traveled to Cherokee to chop wood. The ministry took root when a group from Cherokee traveled to Johns Island, S.C., to cut firewood with a mission team from First Broad Street United Methodist Church in Kingsport.

"As we talked, we realized that there was a need for firewood right there in Cherokee,” says Danny Howe, director of missions for the First Broad Street congregation. "We had our first woodcutting camp that next year. It just grew from there."

Woodcutting ‘camp’

The woodcutting camp has grown to include as many as 80 volunteers at a time, working in two different locations, creating firewood that can help hundreds of families. This year volunteers came from six different states and ranged in age from seventh-graders to senior citizens.

"This is personal for me," says Dawnena Byington as she and her 17-year-old son help with the hydraulic splitter. "My dad is Cherokee, and he is from here. I have aunts and uncles who live here. I had no idea that we could come here to help like this."


Christie Niles and her sister, C.J. Seymour, say the temperature in their century-old cabin drops below freezing
on some mornings.
   

Volunteers refer to this annual event as “Woodcutting Camp,” often using vacation time to spend the week splitting, chopping, stacking and delivering firewood to families that will use it either to cook or heat their homes during the cold winter common to the mountains of North Carolina.

"I could see my breath this morning," says 12-year-old Connor Hutson, a member at First Broad Street. "It’s like a Christmas present to me to be here."

Connor and his dad, Les Hutson, the minister of music at First Broad Street, brought the boy’s schoolwork for the week. Connor plans to study and finish his assignments at night. He may be the youngest member of the woodcutting crew, but he wields an ax and splitter, taking apart large chunks of fallen trees, removed when the Cherokee Tribe began a development project.

"I feel connected," Connor Hutson says. "This will benefit someone real."

The firewood will fill two different lots: one at Cherokee United Methodist Church, plus the Cherokee Tribal Wood Lot. Families may request firewood from either location.

"Some folks might come and get some wood for themselves and pick up some for an elderly neighbor as well. There is a ripple effect," says the Rev. Jeff Ramsland, pastor of Cherokee Church. "Some folks rely on the wood just like others rely on turning up the thermostat."

Natural heat

Many families prefer the firewood instead of relying on other fuel sources, especially in the mountains when weather conditions can knock out electricity.

"Some of our elders like firewood because it is more natural. It is from the earth, and it is traditional," says Oneida Winship, 53. "This wood will help the elderly and the disabled … the very folks who probably provided wood for their elders. We need to do that for them now. That is our mission."

Winship, three of her sisters, two brothers-in-law and a family friend are members of the Choctaw tribe. They drove 13 hours one-way from Broken Bow, Okla., to cut firewood in Cherokee.


Ivan Battiest drove 13 hours from Broken Bow, Okla.,
to help split logs.
   

Oneida left behind her two teenagers to come for the first time. But this is the fourth trip for Winship’s brother-in-law, the Rev. Austin Battiest, and his wife, Barbara.

"We grew up burning wood. We did not have electricity in our home; neither did my wife and her sisters. I said I didn’t ever, ever want to chop wood again," chuckles Battiest, pastor of Bethel Hill United Methodist in Broken Bow.

"But I will split wood to share the love of Christ."

Battiest learned of the woodcutting camp when volunteers from First Broad Street United Methodist worked at his Oklahoma church. They extended an invitation for him to join them in Cherokee.

"We feel such warmth here with all these people. We have loved it so much, that we invited our family to be here with us this time," he says.

"Wood is just more natural to our upbringing, and most Native Americans would rather burn wood," says Barbara Battiest. “Doing for others, like this, is just what we’ve done our whole lives. In the Native American tradition, we are all family.”

Bonds of brotherhood

It is a sentiment appreciated by two women who received an early firewood delivery.

"You don’t know how much we appreciate this. It is a godsend," says Christie Niles, as the firewood delivery truck backs up to the 100-year-old cabin she and her sister are renting.

Austin Battiest, Ivan Battiest and Freeman Taylor stack wood next to the kitchen door.

"It was 30 degrees in the kitchen this morning at 5," Niles says. "It was only 42 in there at 5 o’clock in the afternoon last week."

Niles and her sister, C.J. Seymour, moved into this cabin last week from a weekly rental motel. Niles is looking for a job, and Seymour receives disability payments and Social Security. Both thank the volunteers for the wood and the security it provides, as they anticipate winter temperatures falling below freezing.

Seymour says the amount of wood delivered by the volunteers probably would last two months "if it stays cold and we had to burn it night and day."

"That’s brotherhood. We appreciate it. It touches my heart."

After the wood is neatly stacked, Taylor climbs back in the truck with the Battiests, preparing for the 13-hour return trip to Oklahoma.

"We’re doing this for the Lord," Taylor says. "I wish the whole world could experience the love shared here."

*Robinson is a freelance producer based in Winston-Salem, N.C.

News media contact: Fran Coode Walsh, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video

Firewood Cuts Heat Bills

Related Article

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Resources

Cherokee United Methodist Church

Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church

First Broad Street United Methodist Church

Holston Conference

Native American Comprehensive Plan

The Advance: Red Bird

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