by Kris Aaron
Pastor of First Baptist Bristol, VA
It happened suddenly. I got a call that morning from Keith Stillwell informing me that a long-awaited meeting with an aide for Senator Mark Warner had finally been confirmed. The meeting was scheduled for later that day, and even though it was short notice, Keith wanted to know if I’d be willing to join in. Soon, I learned that the meeting was actually a listening session. Senator Warner was working on a bill to fix the lack of high-speed internet in rural areas across the country, but before the bill was finalized, he wanted to hear one last time from constituents in rural parts of Virginia, parts like Southwest Virginia where I currently pastor. So, after talking more with Keith and Rachel Gunter Shapard, I quickly agreed. And in the meeting, I found an aide willing to listen as I shared stories from my experience here in Bristol.
On the call I admitted that the internet service within the Bristol city limits is pretty good. It’s really good, actually. The issue is once you get a few miles out of the city limits into Washington County, VA. You see my wife, Clary, is an educator. She previously taught in the Washington County, VA School System. And when students everywhere went to virtual learning at the beginning of the pandemic, she learned just how difficult that was for some of the children in this area. She had this one student who lived in a remote holler in a particularly mountainous part of the county. He had no internet service at home because his parents couldn’t afford it. And when she tried to call his parents to check on him during the pandemic, something she did for all of her students, her calls went straight to the parents’ voicemail because there was no cell reception where they lived. In fact, they had to walk to the mailbox to get reception to talk on their cell phones at all. This student, like countless others in under-served, rural areas, was at risk of falling behind his classmates. While we couldn’t help all of these students, we could help this one in particular, and that’s what we, and a few others, did.
Some generous church members who wanted to remain anonymous asked my wife if she had any students who needed special help with virtual learning. And when she told them of this particular student, they developed a plan. Clary and I added an internet hotspot to our Verizon account because it was one of the few devices that received service where this student lived, and these church members contributed money to pay for it. Consequently, this student and his siblings were able to keep up with their school work, and they did. It was a small victory but a victory nonetheless, and it was one we celebrated.
This pandemic has highlighted once again the fact that poor students and students in rural areas are getting left behind. Because of their socio-economic status and/or where they live, they don’t have the same access to technology as those who live in more urban areas. And as education and other aspects of society move online more and more, they’re being relegated to second-class status. That’s why Senator Warner’s work on expanding high-speed internet is so important. It’s why the ongoing work of CBF Global, CBFVA, and Together for Hope is so important. Such work helps give equal opportunity to those who otherwise wouldn’t receive it, and in the process, it gives them dignity as well. To use church language, it provides us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like, a Kingdom in which everyone receives the dignity and opportunity they deserve because they, too, are God’s children. Obviously, that work is ongoing. And while it is, at times, painfully slow, progress is still being made. The Kingdom is still breaking through, but more workers are needed. More investment is needed. More people like you are needed, so I hope that you’ll join in because I can assure you it’s worth it. I can assure of the promise and possibility that are present not only in Southwest Virginia but in rural areas all across the country. Most importantly, I can assure you that God is active and on the move here and now, and that is something you don’t want to miss.