In the wilds of wonderful West Virginia

Published 10:14 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2014

By Frank Roberts

My grandson, Josh, 26, recently showed some films taken when he and some friends spent four days in West Virginia, bringing back memories of my visit to that state way back in ’87.

That is when 30 First Baptist Church (Main Street) youngsters went on a mission trip to Oceana, one of West Virginia’s many impoverished but beautiful locales. At the time, West Virginia had the lowest per capita income in the country, “and this area is far lower than the rest of the state,” said the Rev. J. Pat Garland, a Southern Baptist missionary.


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The Suffolk teens realized this as they saw old mobile homes, shacks and pasteboard houses occupied by families that had not had an income for years, thanks to the mechanization and eventual closing of the coal mines that made the town.

Yet, the country, surrounded by lovely, rugged mountains, is beautiful.

The close-knit folks there were suspicious of outsiders, and some thought the boys and girls from Suffolk were going to kidnap their children. One woman accused them of “invading West Virginia.” A man told them he was not interested in their Bible and, to prove his point, sent his pit bull after them.

The kids went from trailer to trailer selling Jesus. But not many were buying. Attitudes ranged from indifferent to indignant. It wasn’t an easy task in a state where, according to the association, 87 percent of the population did not attend church.

But there was some success. About 50 local children joined the Suffolkians for backyard Bible studies. It was all part of Bold Mission Thrust, sponsored by Virginia’s Southern Baptist Association. Rev. Garland, church strategist for the Home Mission Board, declared at the time, “It takes me about four months to do what you’re doing here in a week.”

The group’s youth director, Valerie Faber, a former Miss New Mexico and sixth Miss America runner-up, mixed work with play. There was time for swimming and softball and a visit to an exhibition coal mine.

And, of course, there was time for worship. Evening services were held in the (honestly) Cow Shed Motel in nearby Pineville, where the group stayed before moving to Panther Lake State Park. Sunday services, shared with missionaries from Sunnyside Baptist Church of Kingsport, Tenn., were held at Issa’s in nearby Logan, a taco restaurant and videocassette rental store. In the background was an advertisement for Marlon Brando in “Godfather II.”

Mostly, the Word was expounded in small grassy areas in the middle of the many trailer parks.

Groups of four or five youth talked and played games with as many of the local youngsters as they could round up, but reaching Oceana’s youngsters was difficult, because many parents did not want them associating with the young visitors.

Local fundamentalist churches were dead set against it, as was the American Baptist Association.

“You’re not American Baptists,” one woman complained. “You’re invading West Virginia.”

The Rev. Charles W. Thompson, First Baptist’s pastor at the time, said, “I think anyone who is not saved is up for grabs.”

He called the young mission group, “a minority in a mission field.”

But the rewards were greater than the trials. A little girl asked her newfound friends to pray for her daddy, “because he’s in jail.” A 14-year-old said she was determined to fight her way out of the West Virginia mountains to become a doctor. She wanted prayer.

One Suffolk missionary, Stephen Riddick, said, “I was never much for liking little kids, but after a while, Mike, (a child he was teaching) responded to me. Now, I see a change in me. I have fun with the kids.”

One of the biggest rewards is the little seed, Faber said. “We’ll leave here not knowing the visible impact we have, but we’ve planted the seed and God will do the watering.”

I would give my eyeteeth to re-visit Oceana.

We’ll do so together next week, when I tell you about Oceana’s drug problem.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at