Fishing for people

The fishhook is the symbol of Mountain T.O.P., and Corey, one of the Summer Plus teens on my transportation route this past summer, drew one for me.

In 1993, I was a sort-of associate member of the Singles Council for the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church. I hadn’t actually been named to the council yet, but I was working on the newsletter and attending the meetings.

At one such meeting, George Bass and his daughter Gail Drake attended to ask for our help. George was the founder and executive director of Mountain T.O.P. (Tennessee Outreach Project), a not-for-profit operating in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. Mountain T.O.P. is best known, then and now, for its Youth Summer Missions (YSM) program, which takes church youth groups from across the eastern U.S. and places them into the Cumberland Mountains for week-long mission camps.

Mountain T.O.P. was started by a United Methodist church, and because of that has some administrative ties to the Tennessee Conference of the UMC, but it operates as an interdenominational missions group, and its youth, college and adult volunteers come from a wide variety of denominational and non-denominational backgrounds.

George and Gail were at the Singles Council meeting that day to ask for our help with Mountain T.O.P.’s Adults In Ministry program, which takes adult volunteers. They were trying to promote one week of AIM as “singles week.” The “singles week” idea never really took off, but it was that presentation that caused me to sign up as an AIM volunteer. Gail mentioned the need for Summer Plus workshop leaders, and she mentioned creative writing as one of the possible topics. Although I had no teaching experience, I thought perhaps my love of writing would make creative writing a good experience for me.

As a result of George and Gail’s presentation that day, I signed up for an AIM week that August. I didn’t really get to teach creative writing that year (I just did a very brief presentation, for a different group of teens each day). But I had an incredible experience, and felt God’s hand at work. I and another volunteer were called upon on short notice to lead a drama workshop. The first day or two, it went horribly. But then Carolyn Greenwood, who was working with George as a kitchen volunteer that week, offered us the use of her video camera. We proposed the idea of a newscast, with funny ads, reporting on some of the other workshops. The teens loved it.

After the camp week, I wrote a story for the Times-Gazette about my experience, and — for no particular reason — drove to Nashville to drop a copy of it by the Mountain T.O.P. offices.

I joined the Mountain T.O.P. board of directors the following year, and served on the board for a total of 12 years, in non-consecutive terms over a 14-year period. I served as editor of the 20th anniversary storybook in 1995. I was secretary for almost my entire time on the board. I traveled to our YSM camps during the summer to do Wednesday-night presentations.

I haven’t been on the board since about 2007, but Mountain T.O.P. is still a part of my life. I miss it when I’m not able to do an AIM week during the summer. During my last term on the board, we saw the passing of the torch from George Bass to Ed Simmons as executive director, the closing of the Nashville office and the relocation of the ministry headquarters to Grundy County. I have watched with pride as Ed and his team have integrated the ministry more closely with Grundy County, making Mountain T.O.P. more truly a part of the area it serves. My exposure to the service area is as a visitor; Ed and Julie and the others live there, attend church there, join clubs and participate in community life.

When I first got involved with Mountain T.O.P., the AIM and YSM programs operated out of a network of camps throughout the Cumberland Plateau, from Jamestown to Jasper. Changing economic conditions and camp rental fees eventually forced the ministry to use only the two camps it owns, Cumberland Pines in Grundy County and Baker Mountain in Van Buren County. Baker Mountain was built during my time on the board of directors. I have a sentimental attachment to some of those old camps, but I think the focus on two camp facilities has helped to make Mountain T.O.P. more of a neighbor, a partner rather than a visitor.

The Cumberland Plateau is an area with special economic conditions and challenges, and some areas, like Grundy County, have unique personalities and cultures. Mountain T.O.P. celebrates the strengths of these communities while seeking to address conditions of poverty.

Mountain T.O.P.’s first priority is serving the people of the mountains. But a close second is providing a powerful experience of service and spiritual development for its volunteers — whether those volunteers are teens in their formative years, or cantankerous old small-town journalists. I know that Mountain T.O.P. has changed my life, and I can’t imagine what the last quarter of a century would have been like for me without Mountain T.O.P.

Today, Tuesday, November 28, is Giving Tuesday. If you would like to give a monetary gift to Mountain T.O.P., that gift will be matched by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. My first and deepest hope is that you’ll join me as a volunteer on the Mountain next year, but a close second is that you will join me in this exciting fundraiser. Please go to to make your contribution, or to to find out more about the program.

The symbol of Mountain T.O.P. is the fishhook, and the foundational scripture is Matthew 4:18–20.

“As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (NRSV)

I hope you will join me in that effort.



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John I. Carney

John I. Carney


Author of “Dislike: Faith and Dialogue in the Age of Social Media,” available at