The local folks say Sunbright is more dead than alive. It squats at a crossroads in a harsh mountain land where children are raised on biscuits and cornmeal, where some families can't afford an 88-cent electricity bill and where justice often is decided at the end of a gunshot barrel.

To outsiders, it is an alien world of strip mines and coal stoves, hunger and despair, pioneer ingenuity and mountain independence.

Last week, 23 Fairfax County youths and their chaperones were initiated into that world, part of a mission project that promised five days of back-breaking work in return for the chance to give a small measure of help to the people of this poverty-riddled region.

They gave up air conditioning and comfortable beds for hot days and the hard floor of a farmhouse. They traded movies and shopping trips for long hours of dirty work and early-morning kitchen duty.

City kids used their first outhouse. Teen-agers who had never picked up a hammer repaired roofs and walls and floors. Each night, tired, sweaty bodies slept shoulder to shoulder on a wooden floor. Ravenous youths woke up to breakfasts that included flies in the pancake batter and ants in the cereal--and learned to eat them anyway.

They met 72-year-old Leda Bowling and at first described her as a witch making moonshine. But they later came to know her as a kindly widow who canned 110 jars of beans and cabbage to help carry her through next winter.

They reroofed R.T. Lackey's dilapidated shanty and gave his family a dry home for the first time in 10 years. They built a new house for his son, James Lackey, whose trailer burned to the ground last month just days before the younger Lackey lost the construction job that supported his wife and two children. They helped build the first library for the tiny mountain town of Burrville nearby.

They also discovered the cruel ironies of a town too poor to support anything but second-hand clothing stores while low-paid workers turn out Izod LaCoste shirts and Calvin Klein jeans at two nearby factories.

"I feel like I'm in another country," said Charles Rose, a junior at Langley High School in McLean. "It's something you won't forget."

The Fairfax County group was sponsored by the Vienna Presbyterian Church. The youths and their leaders came to this secluded region, deep in the folds of the Cumberland Mountains, at the invitation of the Morgan-Scott Project for Cooperative Christian Concerns, a 10-year-old mission sponsored by 11 Christian denominations and run by a frantically energetic man named Robert Geyer. Although several mission groups have been established in Appalachia, the Morgan-Scott Project is one of the most far-reaching and diverse programs, according to those familiar with its work.

"Our goal is to make it so people can have more say over their own lives," said Geyer. "We can't say we want them to have a higher living standard, because what they have is so low. We want them to have a living standard--period."

The two northeastern Tennessee counties served by the mission--Morgan and Scott--are among the 100 poorest in the nation. The mission has set up emergency medical clinics, libraries, thrift shops and food pantries.

But its most unusual program is the work camp started last year. Groups of high school and college students, most of them sponsored by churches from throughout the nation, spend a week working on the repair and building projects selected by Geyer and his assistants.

Each participant pays $8 a day to work at the project, and the money buys the materials used on the construction jobs. The trip cost each Fairfax County youth $150, the biggest share used for food and transportation.

Last year more than 600 participants completed 71 projects, and Geyer said he expects about the same number of volunteers this year.

Why would kids pay to live and work under primitive conditions?

"I don't mind the work, as long as we're doing something to help out," said Sharon Fisher, 14, a student at Madison High in Vienna.

"There's no way you can turn R.T. Lackey's house into a house you'd want to live in," Geyer told the Fairfax County group leaders before they started their first project. "What needs to be done is to run a bulldozer through it and start all over. But our objective is to make it dry before the next rain."

After one look at the Lackey place, Fairfax chaperone Pat Frank and his crew of four youths weren't even sure they could do that much.

"It looks like a henhouse," said Madison High junior Jamie Slaughter, as he looked with dismay at the sagging porch, the plastic sheets over the windows and the aluminium foil covering the bare wooden walls. The roof leaked three places in every room. One daughter had moved into an old school bus in the back yard to escape the rats.

Slaughter choked on the acrid stench of rot and grime that seemed to seep through the cracks and doorways of the house. He clambered on the roof to begin the repairs. Moments later, he slipped and felt one foot crash through soggy tar paper into a bedroom below.

For three long days the crew labored on the roof in the blistering Tennessee heat, ripping up rotted rafters and laying down new roofing paper. "We'd just have to do without if they weren't helping," said Lea Sexton, one of Lackey's daughters.

"It feels good when you can look and see what you've done," said Madison High School senior Beth Swanson, after the last roof tack was hammered in.

Teammate Shawn Walker, 15, of Oakton High in Vienna, wasn't so impressed: "Even with all the work we did on that house, I still would never live in it."

The youths learned as much about people, compassion and survival as they learned about construction skills. They learned that mountain pride is fierce, and despite crippling poverty, the mountain people despise charity and pity.

Fairfax County chaperone Linda Kneer and her crew spent a day painting an elderly man's shabby house. At the end of the day, "he said he really appreciated our work, but wanted to give us something in return," said Charles Rose, whose father is a Democratic congressman from North Carolina. "He stuffed $12 in Linda's pocket even though we told him we didn't want anything."

In the evenings, the youngsters listened wide-eyed to tales they thought existed only in Snuffy Smith cartoon strips and Dickensian novels.

"This is a different way of life from another decade," said Geyer, launching into his accounts of two years in the mountains.

He told them about the woman in a nearby town who traded her third child for a dog. And the mother who abandoned her three youngsters in the mountains on a bitter winter night.

He told them about the 12-year-old girl who died from an overdose of a medicine because her parents couldn't read the instructions on the bottle.

He warned them that shotguns were the law of the land in a mountain terrain virtually unpatrolled by law enforcement officers. "Around here it's not a very good thing to say you're going to kill somebody," Geyer said. "Local people are going to believe you."

As the group returned nervously to its out-of-the-way farmhouse quarters, one of the girls said, "I'm going to have nightmares tonight."

Bob Geyer rides the bumpy back roads of these mountains in a fiesty red Dodge Colt. He follows pocked gravel roads until they become little more than ruts. When the ruts end, he creates new roads, winding through the post card-pretty mountains that camouflage much of the ugly mountain poverty.

Sometimes, where the path ends in the midst of the deep green woods, he finds people like Lou and Burl Overton and their small daughter. In their run-down shanty, rain pours through the roof in summer and frost seeps through bedroom walls in winter.

Geyer pulls out a tape measure and scribbles figures on a scrap of paper. He volunteers to send out a work crew to insulate the walls and fix the sagging roof. The Overtons gratefully accept.

But sometimes, Geyer says, it takes weeks of coaxing to persuade even the neediest to take help. Other times, even Geyer can't do much to help these desperate families. He discovered one of those families last week in a four-room shack.

Seven people are living in the house where the only furniture is a bed and a tattered chair. The family has no income. They can't pay their 88-cent electric bill and don't know where they will find the $35 to pay the rent.

The father is out of work and can't afford gas for the battered car out front. He has worn holes in his shoes walking down the mountain to look for work. And everytime he gets there, the job is filled.

The Morgan-Scott project doesn't have the resources to give them furniture, money or gas, Geyer said. He offers a few words of consolation, tells them about the mission thrift shop and suggests the youngsters pick blackberries to sell in town.

"Sometimes you feel like all you do is put out fires," said Geyer dejectedly. "You can just hope you do a little more than that."

Geyer, a thin man with a dusty-red beard, used to earn $40,000 a year as the owner of four hardware stores in Buffalo, N.Y. He gave that up almost five years ago, he said, when he and his wife "felt a strong calling to do something worthwhile." After a stint working with the mentally retarded in California, Geyer learned about the opening for a director for the Morgan-Scott Project.

"We were considering foreign mission work," said the 37-year-old Geyer, "but we found this and thought it was plenty foreign." Geyer is paid $12,500 to run the program, which has an anticipated budget of about $100,000 this year.

And despite his project's efforts to fill the gaps in the scarce social service programs of the regions, Geyer said, "We're not a social agency, our first concern is spreading Christianity."

At the end of a long, hot day of roofing and digging septic tanks and building chimneys, the kids from Vienna Presbyterian Church headed to Slant Rock and the cool mountain creek that runs beside it. The break gave them a chance to relax and meet other teen-agers working in the mission project. But most of all it helped them forget the poverty and despair they had seen.

Slant Rock, named for the huge rock that juts over the creek, also is a favorite meeting place for mountain kids. But the locals kept to one end of the creek and the city kids kept to another.

"You can always tell when a new work camp group comes into town," said the cashier at Big John's grocery in Sunbright. "Their kids are wearing braces and glasses; our kids can't afford them."

Sunbright, unincorporated, population 600, gets smaller every year. Its tombstone was carved the day Interstate 75 opened 40 miles to the east, bypassing Sunbright and the other mountain towns that dot Tennessee Highway 27.

Sunbright and its tiny collection of run-down businesses sit at the center of the area served by the Morgan-Scott project. The mission focuses on the region where the very poorest live, southern Scott County and northern Morgan County. For the 14,000 people in the core area, there are about 450 jobs. An Izod LaCoste shirt factory is just outside Sunbright and a Calvin Klein jeans plant is located in Burrville. The Sears & Roebuck Co. runs a clothing factory in Deer Lodge.

"If you want to make a product cheap in the United States, come to Appalachia," said Geyer.

The unemployment rate in the area has fluctuated between 13 percent and 21 percent over the past few months, compared with a national average of 9.5 percent. The local mines, which produce a low-grade, high-sulphur coal, have shut down most of their operations because of the decreasing demand for coal in steel-producing centers to the north. Most of the men who have managed to keep their jobs in the construction industry drive more than 100 miles each way to work.

The average per capita income in Morgan County is $4,436. In Scott County, it is $5,191.

Because the State of Tennessee has refused to join the federal welfare system, about the only assistance most people can get is food stamps.

"Many of the families sell their food stamps so they can pay the electricity bill or buy clothes for the kids," said Geyer.

While the national recession is crushing the already-depressed region, President Reagan's budget cuts have had little effect.

"There was nothing here to cut," said Geyer.

David Wright, youth director for the Vienna Presbyterian Church, described the youngsters in his group as "pretty affluent, upper-middle income." Their parents are members of Congress, Foreign Service officials and high-ranking government employes. They are from a county where the per capita income is $13,403 and the average family income is $41,600.

In Scott County, 54 percent of the students will never graduate from high school. The State Department of Education tried for the 10th time last fall to close the Morgan County schools because they didn't meet state standards: The high school has been condemned for safety reasons and many teachers have only General Equivalency Diplomas, even though state standards require a college degree.

The local school board says it doesn't have enough money to meet state standards.

By contrast, the Fairfax County public schools are ranked as among the best in the nation. The dropout rate is about 2 percent and about 60 percent of the graduates go on to four-year colleges.

After a week in the mountains, the Fairfax County youths were keenly aware of the differences.

"We've certainly seen how the other half lives," said Jim Gourley, one of the Fairfax County youngsters. "Now we all will go home feeling like millionaires."

Added John Gibson, 17: "Something like this makes you appreciate everything more when you go home--no rats, no snakes, nice clothes, your own room."

Many of the Fairfax youngsters returned home with plans for summer trips to Europe and long weekends at the beaches, a sharp contrast to the lives of the people they left behind.

Geyer describes the mountain natives as "a people with no jobs, no past that's any good and no future that looks any good."

Youth leader Wright hopes the experience sticks with the youngsters he brought here: "For most of these kids, it was their first brush with poverty. But I don't want this to be just a token thing. I want them to carry it with them to the future."