The Great Smoky Mountains of central Appalachia offer tourists some of the most picture-worthy vistas in the United States. Like many beautiful places, however, they hide an ugly reality. This is especially true for women in the region who have experienced poverty, abuse, and incarceration.
Cindy* is an example. In 2014, she approached Emily Houser for help finding a place to live. The two women had met while Cindy was serving time for drug possession in the county lockup and Houser was doing jail ministry.
“I can live with this guy who’s down the street,” Cindy told Houser.
Houser knew that was a bad idea. Such arrangements often lead to domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Cindy’s 12-year-old niece, Andrea*, would be staying with her. The girl’s mother had died of an overdose, so she lived with her grandmother for a time. Then she went to live with her father, who sexually abused her, as did his friends.
The experience of sexual abuse is pervasive among the women and girls with whom Houser works.
“I have never ministered to a woman [in jail] who has made it past the age of 12 without being abused,” she says.
Though common, it’s still devastating.
“If I don’t get Jesus, I don’t think anything else is going to help me,” Andrea tearfully told Houser. “Will you please help me get Jesus?”
Then Andrea asked a hard question: “Would you please tell me where Jesus was when all that stuff was happening to me?”
That night, Houser wept as she took Andrea’s question to God in prayer.
“Emily,” she sensed God saying, “I am inside of you and so many people like you, but you stay on a church pew.”
Houser knew God wanted more for Cindy and Andrea and others like them.
Again, she sensed God speaking: “I will, like the Book of Ezra, rebuild my temple inside their hearts, but you have to be like the Book of Nehemiah, and rebuild walls of safety around them.”
Houser’s encounter with Andrea changed the focus of her ministry. Until then, she had been working to plant a church in Newport, Tennessee. In 2016, however, Houser became an endorsed chaplain with Assemblies of God U.S. Missions and began to raise awareness and funds for the Smoky Mountain Dream Center, a 94-acre farm in Greeneville, Tennessee.
The center’s purpose can be stated in three words: freedom, flourish, and fly.
As Houser puts it, “We want every woman and child in Appalachia to have the opportunity to find freedom from poverty, abuse, and incarceration; flourish in their homes, schools, work, and community; and fly toward the dreams God has placed in their hearts.”
The Dream Center’s primary ministry is its work-release program for incarcerated women, the first of its kind in eastern Tennessee. Women who enroll go to the farm three days a week to receive instruction about recovering from addiction, as well as about life skills, such as parenting, home economics, and job training. They also work in the center’s community garden.
Substance abuse is endemic in Appalachia, which has been especially hard hit by the opioid crisis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the opioid overdose death rate during 2017 was 72% higher in Appalachian counties than in other U.S. counties.
Most of the women Houser works with have been incarcerated for drug-related offenses and struggle with addiction. Their recidivism rate is 91%. In addition to jail time, the women lose custody of their kids. Like Andrea, those kids too often end up in homes where they face increased risks of abuse and neglect.
To help the women break free from addiction, Houser uses curricula from Adult & Teen Challenge, a Christian drug and alcohol recovery program affiliated with AG U.S. Missions.
Appalachia is overwhelmingly Christian, at least nominally. All the women Houser works with know about God the Father and God the Son. They don’t know the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit, however.
“One of the main challenges the Dream Center faces is that it’s a Spirit-filled organization that is trying to operate in a place that doesn’t know who the Holy Spirit is,” Houser says. “I don’t think people can overcome life-controlling issues unless they have the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Houser points to the example of a woman with scoliosis who developed an opioid addiction following back surgery. When the prescriptions ran out, she bought illegal opioids off the street to manage her pain, and that landed her in jail.
When the woman came to the farm, she was abusing over-the-counter acetaminophen and still struggling with pain. Then things began to change.
The woman told Houser, “Chaplain, since I’ve started coming to the farm, I barely take one Tylenol every other day. I think God is healing me!”
Beyond recovery and life-skills training, Houser would like to build transitional housing units on the farm for women who have been released from jail. With a safe place to live, the women can focus on reuniting with their kids and reintegrating into society. Houser wants to start a business incubator for these women so they can become economically independent.
Still a church planter at heart, Houser also hopes to start a congregation for the women she serves.
“A lot of them don’t feel lovely enough to go to regular church,” she says. “When you’re released, even if you want to serve Jesus, you don’t feel like you’re ‘church lady’ material.”
Houser acknowledges that ministry to recovering addicts with criminal records can be scary for church people. But when parishioners learn of the abuse these women have endured, fear usually gives way to compassion.
At the moment, Houser’s vision for the Dream Center exceeds her capacity.
Houser’s responsibilities as executive director include speaking and teaching; providing post-incarceration care and family care; job coaching and business incubation; and marketing and fundraising.
“I have more ministry than I can shake a stick at,” Houser says.
Voluntary donations and corporate partnerships are always needed to fund the ministry, but what the Dream Center most needs are workers. And the need is urgent. For every person who experiences positive life change, there are others who fall through the cracks.
Back in 2014, Houser was unable to connect Cindy and Andrea with all the resources they needed to start a new life. Less than three weeks after Cindy approached Houser for help, she returned to using and selling drugs. Within six months, Cindy was back in jail. The grandmother died of a massive heart attack, and all her grandchildren — including Andrea — ended up in foster care.
“The last I heard, [Andrea] was cutting herself and was pretty much hopeless and ready to die,” Houser says. “When you experience that, you cannot look away and just be like, ‘Be warm and well fed.’”
Cindy has a stepdaughter who is now in the Dream Center’s program. Houser is hopeful that Andrea will one day find her way there as well.
“God has made a place for [Andrea] at the farm to meet with Him,” Houser says. “It’s just a matter of when. That story isn’t done being written yet.”
*The name is changed to protect privacy.
This article appears in the Winter 2022 edition of Influence magazine. Used with permission.