Just two weeks ago, a member of the First Baptist Church sent a check for $125,000 to the deacons, no strings attached. What followed has been called "one miracle after another."
Members could have voted to pay off the mortgage on the red-brick sanctuary, build a long-needed fellowship hall, increase aid to the unemployed and poor among them here in the heart of Appalachia or even hire a secretary for their overworked pastor.
But when someone mentioned Ethiopia, the Rev. Jim Watt Jr. said, there wasn't any question where the money would go. The seven-member board proposed giving $100,000 of the gift to Ethiopian relief, and two days later, the congregation voted its support.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house when we voted," Judy Chapman said of the unanimous action by about 80 of the church's 400 members.
Since then, their generosity -- most of the members prefer to call it their Christian duty -- has set off what Watt called "one miracle after another," the first being that the donor matched the gift with another $100,000 for Ethiopian relief.
Then, like bread cast upon the streams that criss-cross the hills and hollows of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, donations began pouring in to the church.
At today's regular Sunday service, Watt held aloft checks, ranging from $5 from an unemployed coal miner in Gilbert, W.Va., to $500, totaling $3,900 more for Ethiopia.
"If all churches would follow your example," a state police captain wrote, "there would be no starvation in the world . . . . Multimillion-dollar church buildings do not feed the hungry."
Sitting in a front pew was the man who started it all, a tall, gray-haired coal mine owner who doesn't want his name mentioned because he considers the plight of the starving in Ethiopia "too important for personalities."
"It's kind of a private thing," he said at a church dinner after the service, held down the road at the senior citizens' center because that fellowship hall still hasn't been built.
The man, who asked that his name not be used, said he and his wife have been tithing -- contributing 10 percent of their income to the church -- for 35 years.
"I'm not a fanatic. It's a way of life for us," he said. "From the start, we took it off the top and spent what was left. There was always enough, though it seemed hard at times."
He played down the size of his gift, noting that "we charge it off" as a tax deduction.
"It's a joint benevolence" with the government, he said, laughing.
"No matter how much money we have, it's not enough" to solve the problems over there, he said.
He is pleased that the United States is sending surplus grain to Ethiopia, but said he is disap- pointed that President Reagan hasn't "led a monstrous effort, not just to keep people alive in 1985, but to help them start a new way of life."
He said that while "nobody ever puts a string on a tithe," he admits to having "a matching sum in mind" when he had his accountant call the minister "to let them [the deacons] know it was coming."
The donor is one of the deacons, but he stayed away from that meeting "so I wouldn't influence them, but they were as enthusiastic as I was."
"We wanted it all to go directly to the starving people," Watt said, so they bypassed the regular method by which the church sends one-fourth of all its offerings to foreign missions.
"For a while it looked like we were going to have to go through Catholic World Relief," the donor said. But officials at the Kentucky Baptist Convention in Middletown, and at the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board in Richmond, Va., cut the red tape so that last Tuesday a check for $200,000 was wired to Ethiopia.
"It's 100 percent going to food and supplies," Watt said. "No administrative costs, no personnel costs. And it won't be used to buy Bibles -- we can do that later -- it's strictly for the starving."
One of the miracles, the minister said, is that after months of being "thwarted by the pro-communist government over there," a Bap- tist missionary "walked into the office of Comrade So-and-So" last week and got permission to take supplies to 30,000 people trapped in an area accessible only by helicopter.
Watt said he believes part of the money from Belfry will be used to cut a 60-kilometer road to four missionaries who are caring for those people.
Joe Phillips of South Williamson, who described himself as "one of the few coal miners working around here," said his fellow miners "understand" sending the money to Africa. "I'm just thrilled to be a part of it," he said.
Wives of two unemployed miners agreed. "We've both got good jobs," one of the women said. "We've got enough."
Laura Blackburn, 14, said her clasmates at Belfry High School "think [the gift] is great. It's awful that so many are going hungry over there."
If there is any disappointment here, it is that, as Dave Campbell put it, "so many of us tend to forget about the less fortunate. We're really trying to do what God intended for his people to do, help one another."
Added deacon Jim Angeline, "you always think someone else is going to take care of it. But when the first thing you see on the TV each morning is starving kids, well, we saw the need, and we had the money to do something about it."
Unemployment remains high here in Pike County; Watt signed checks for $1,000 worth of food on Saturday.
But he is proud that there "was not even a suggestion that we should do something else" with the money. "No one here is literally starving to death, and they are there."