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WEST VIRGINIA: HILL COUNTRY HOME OF BEAUTIFUL SCENERY AND ""BEAUTIFUL TESTIMONIES’ OF MEMBERS.

SHARE WEST VIRGINIA: HILL COUNTRY HOME OF BEAUTIFUL SCENERY AND ""BEAUTIFUL TESTIMONIES’ OF MEMBERS.

Perhaps West Virginia is, as a once-popular song claimed, "almost heaven," with its rolling green mountains, cascading streams and lush foliage. That's not to say Church members in the state's eastern panhandle have an edge when it comes to ascending that lofty summit, but they are working toward it.

"We have a little work to do before we really arrive," said a smiling Pres. L. Lynn Olsen of the Winchester Virginia Stake, which includes three wards and seven branches in four states. Five of the units are in Wst Virgnina's northeast corner. The other units encompass members living in virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.West Virginia is also headquarters of three stakes -- Huntington, Charleston and Fairmont -- in the western, west-central and northern parts of the state.

The state is, as its license plates claim, "wild and wonderful." The ruggedness of the land accounts for the nickname "Mountain State." Its roughness has hindered economic growth. Much of the land is too steep for farming. Highways, railroads and airports are difficult to construct.

But forests of valuable hardwood trees cover many hillsides. And rich mineral deposits lie below-ground. West Virginia ranks second to Kentucky in U.S. production of coal.

And it is precisely this rugged, remote beauty that attracts many visitors to the state and absorbs its inhabitants.

It is especially stunning in the fall.

"The trees are colorful and beautiful this time of year," mused Pres. Olsen. "And the people's strong testimonies are beautiful, too."

Though the stake president readily expresses his love for the area in which he has resided for 25 years, and for its people, he and other leaders of northeast West Virginia's four branches and one ward acknowledge the challenges faced by the Church and its members in this area.

"Members throughout our stake have a special challenge because they are so widespread," Pres. Olsen explained. "All have considerable distances to travel to get to stake meetisngs and participate in activities. By highway, the stake stretches approximately 130 miles north and south, and 140 miles east and west. I'm about 75 miles from the stake center in Winchester."

When asked if there is a flat acre in the area, the president responded,"One or two, and those are on the east end of the stake, around Winchester. There are few straight roads in West Virgnina."

Even the stake leadership is spread out. Pres. Olsen resides in Cumberland, Md., where he is employed by Hercules Aerospace Co. His first counselor, J. Stephen Kimble, is a dentist in tiny Petersburg, W. Va., a town of approximately 2,000 people. His just-released second counselor lived in Virgnina.

"All of our stake meetings have to be held on Saturdays and Sundays," Pres. Kimble noted. "When you go to a stake function, it pretty much takes your entire day. We are not able to get together enough for people to get acquanited as well as we would like."

The problems of geography and travel lead to member isolation in the northeast part of the Mountain State, where finding experienced leaders isn't always easy.

"With two exceptions, our high councilors come from Cumberland (Md.) and Winchester (Va.)," Pres. Kimble added.

"One of the challenges in keeping leadership here is the lack of employment around. A lot of our young people get their educations and have to leave the area to find employment. But we're getting a lot of retired people coming back, and that's helped a lot."

There are not a lot of employment opportunities in rural West Virginia. That holds true for Petersburg, Romney and Keyser, small communities that all have branches of the Church.

Mining, timber and paper industries have been up and down, and many jobs they provide have limited potential for personal growth and satisfaction, according to Pres. Kimble.

The Romney Branch is led by one of the retired people of whom Pres. Kimble speaks: Pres. George F. Vogt Jr., a 63-year-old former electrical engineer with NASA in Greenbelt, Md.

Pres. Vogt and his wife, Janice Elaine, acquired 100 acres in the beautiful North River Valley 25 years ago while still living in Maryland. Located 20 miles east of Romney, the site became a weekend retreat for the family.

Pres. Vogt worked through the years to design and construct their current home, elaborate workshop, equipment shelter and steel suspension footbridge that they use to walk across the river into their property when the water is high.

When he retired five years ago, the Vogts moved there full time and began to put considerable finishing touches on their home and the other facilities, and he was promptly called as branch president.

"They were waiting for me to come," laughed Pres. Vogt. "The stake presidency knew we were coming and were in need of a branch president. I had just been released as bishop of the College Park (Md.) Ward when we moved."

The Vogts were more than willing, however, to roll up their sleeves around their home and throughout the branch, which has a membership of 144 people. The average meeting attendance is 62.

"That's not bad," the branch president notes. "It indicates more than 40 percent come to Church on Sunday, but there is so much in the way of other programs that we are unable to do. I guess more than anything, I'm trying to give the people in the branch a better picture of what the Church really is. I think they don't grasp the big picture of the worldwide restored Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. They sometimes feel it's the little church here in the country."

Other challenges for Church members in the region include anti-Mormon sentiment, and a general lack of educational opportunities.

"We just try to let others know what kind of people we really are," Pres. Vogt pointed out.

To help break the ice, the couple participates in another church's Bible study group, picnics and cleanup projects at the community cemetery.

"The group just got a new minister," Pres. Vogt said. "My wife jokingly told one of them that maybe I could take over. They didn't take her up on the offer. We have had missionaries in and taught discussions to some of these people with no dramatic results, but you never know. Maybe some of these things will bear fruit."

Sister Vogt is a member of Literacy Volunteers of America and has tutored several people in the area. She also is certified by LDS Social Services to teach courses in parenting and eliminating self-defeating behaviors.

Sister Vogt compared their experience to a mission, and emphasized that she and her husband have a great love for their fellow saints.

"This has been an opportunity to do a lot of things that we probably wouldn't have been able to do in a large ward," she said. "An official slogan of the state of West Virginia is `Almost heaven.' We feel that way and really enjoy it here."

Randall T. Chew III, president of the Keyser Branch and a geology teacher at Potomac State College in Keyser, echoed the Vogts' feelings about trying to expand the horizons of branch members.

"I'm always talking education, the 93rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants," Pres. Chew said. "I don't care where they get it - from the scriptures, good books, school - I'm always encouraging them to broaden their horizons. I guess being a teacher, that comes naturally."

The president estimated the average education level for branch members over 50 is the sixth grade. "When you get a little younger, they will be high school graduates. There are two native West Virginians in the Keyser Branch who are college graduates. Education can be a sore spot with some people. There are some barriers there that we have to work through. Communication is sometimes a challenge."

Pres. Chew said that in his branch, "everyone knows everyone else, and everyone is related to everyone else. They very much take care of each other."

He said two weeks ago a 3-year-old girl was run over by her father's coal truck. "They were not members, but their cousin is a less-active member. The family was terribly broken up.

"Our members asked me if we could help. We got meals going for two days. I was really touched by the way the branch rallied around these people. The meals and other acts of kindness were very well received."

Melvin W. McGuiness, 62, is Pres. Chew's executive secretary. As a young man he left high school and went into the military service, later returning for his diploma. He worked as a barber, welder and at the nearby paper mill, and grew up being criticized for his beliefs by non-member family members and friends.

"We've always had criticism, but that's their problem," he mused. "It didn't affect me at all. Our biggest challenge is getting the members out. You get some of them hot and cold. Some come for a while, then they slack off. The Church means everything to me. It does to most of my family. I have a hard time explaining things, but I do know that I have an awfully good testimony of the gospel."