|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
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
"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."
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
"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."
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
Christie Niles and her sister, C.J. Seymour, say the temperature in their century-old cabin drops below freezing
on some mornings.
"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."
Many families prefer the firewood instead of relying on other fuel
sources, especially in the mountains when weather conditions can knock
"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.
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.
Ivan Battiest drove 13 hours from Broken Bow, Okla.,
to help split logs.
"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
"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
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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