January 23, 2017

If faith can move mountains, then why can’t it create jobs? That was the simple, but powerful idea behind Kentucky Highlands Promise Zone and SOAR convening the first faith-based economic development summit “Jobs Wanted: Faithful Investing in Appalachia’s People.”

Held this fall in Hazard, more than 200 people came to find out how faith-based organizations can connect with entrepreneurs, financial institutions and job seekers to make a difference in Eastern Kentucky.

“They have a heart for it,” said Sandi Curd, program coordinator for the Promise Zone. “They’re already serving the population with the most needs. Many of our best leaders are in these organizations. We want to expand their work in for example food pantries to empowerment building like growing food to sustainable like selling surplus food at the farmers market.”

One organization that led a panel discussion at the summit has already figured out how to turn ministry into job creation is Meridzo Center, which is a client of the Kentucky Innovation Network London office.

Meridzo shared its successes, including how it expanded its ministries to include a development corporation focused on creating jobs. Not only does Meridzo have several sites for religious retreats, it has a coffee shop, fitness center and has expanded into mushroom growing and dulcimer making.

“This summit was greatly needed,” said Lonnie Riley, the pastor who is the executive director for Meridzo Center and also serves on the Promise Zone Board of Directors. “It raised awareness of how all segments of society can work together. We are sometimes overlooked because of our religious affiliation, but we are supplying jobs and attracting visitors to the region, which puts new dollars directly into the community.”

Together, the four organizations represented at the convening have created more than a hundred jobs and attract thousands of visitors each year through attractions like Meridzo’s retreat centers, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center and various area settlement schools.

“The summit provided another opportunity to break down silos in eastern Kentucky,” said Jared Arnett, executive director of SOAR. “One group who knows what to do but doesn’t have the network to accomplish it; and the other who has the network but is not always informed on how they can help.  This was a great step in the right direction in understanding that there is a very human, spiritual side to the work that we do in Appalachia Kentucky.”

Curd hopes the summit will become an annual event, but the first convening has already planted the seeds of success:

  • One faith-based organization had lost access to a facility to hold multiple spiritual workshops each year. It was connected with another site, which means additional revenue for that site and a continued boost to the region by the visitors who participate in the workshops;
  • A private college is going to incorporate a faith-based track into its community development program; and
  • A more in-depth, two-day faith-based workshop will further explore ways to expand economic development among faith organizations.


“These organizations can have a substantial role in diversifying and revitalizing the economy,” Curd said. “The success of organizations like Meridzo is that they are open to what comes to them and will find a way to use it all for the betterment of the region.”