John Denver’s song, “Take Me Home, Country Road,” references better-known Virginia geological features – the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah River. Denver, however, is not crooning about Virginia country roads, but rather, WEST Virginia! The song has become the official state song of West Virginia, sentimentally sung by Mountaineer fans at all West Virginia University sporting events. Apparently, the songwriters only needed two things: 1) a state with beautiful mountains; and 2) a state that had the syllables to fit the melody.
West Virginia may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of a move of the Lord, especially in the Anglican context. Throughout the ages, rural regions have often experienced disparaging comments and stereotypes, and West Virginia is no exception. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip.” (John 1:46). And there are very serious issues in West Virginia, beginning with the opioid crisis. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021, West Virginia had the highest opioid overdose death rate per capita in the country.
Native West Virginian, Becca Roberts, said, “A big part of our story of why we came back, but also a lot to do with why we originally left, was that there were six people from my high school graduating class who OD’d (overdosed). That was one of the biggest eye-openers for us, just the need not only across West Virginia but within Charleston, had you asked me when I was in high school, even probably in college, I wouldn’t have thought that was a problem at all. I think once we stepped away and were hearing these stories about people who we had been close to or who we had associated with, it was then that we kind of realized the depth of the need for Jesus in the city.”
According to the Rev. Ben Sharpe and a growing band of Anglican clergy, the idea of West Virginia being a territory ill-fitted to Anglicanism is just flat-out wrong.
“I, along with others, had a preconceived idea that it would be difficult to get people to come to West Virginia to start new churches,” said the Rev. Derek Roberts of Hope Church, an Anglican church in Charleston, West Virginia. “I remember saying, ’There’s no way anyone with a seminary education will ever be coming to West Virginia to start a church.’ The interesting thing is that I make these bold claims and then God is like, ‘O.K., yea, watch what I’m about to do.’”
“At first thought, it seems like the most unlikely pairing, right?” commented the Rt. Rev. Quigg Lawrence, Bishop Suffragan of the Diocese of Christ Our Hope, “because Anglicans have liturgical worship. West Virginia mainly has Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal Holiness, and so most people say this is a really bad fit. But I think the Lord knew that people wanted something, maybe, more deeply grounded in Scripture; word and sacrament; grace and truth. We’re not the only church. We’re not a perfect church, obviously, but we’re a church that does have these gifts of word and sacrament, and we have an episcopacy that helps oversee and equip.”
The Rev. Dr. Jonathon Wylie of Church of the Resurrection, Huntington, West Virginia in the Diocese of the Living Word, observed that “A lot of these folks have heard the gospel, or have some familiarity with it, but haven’t necessarily had the discipleship in the gospel – they haven’t been shepherded into the fullness of the gospel life.”
In 2018, Fr. Ben was asked to be a part of a team of other priests and churches called Mission Hope West Virginia to come to Beckley, West Virginia to help start a new Anglican parish. After starting, serving, and planting churches in North Carolina since 2007, Fr. Ben fell in love with the people in Beckley and West Virginia. He prayerfully felt God was leading him to come alongside, support, and be a catalyst for new work in West Virginia. In February of 2022, the Rt. Rev. Steve Breedlove, Bishop of the Diocese of Christ Our Hope, asked Fr. Ben if he would help in the mission which included working with church plants from the Diocese of the Living Word.
Bishop Quigg reflected, “We needed somebody whose sole job was to be focused on this area. And Ben is extraordinary. I mean, he’s a scholar. He’s an evangelist. He’s a pastor. He knows how to mentor and disciple.”
Indeed, at a local Beckley food and beverage festivity, it is plain to see that Fr. Ben’s transition from his North Carolina roots to the hills of West Virginia would not be difficult. Smoked barbeque and the hops fermentation process kept Fr. Ben locked in conversations at various vendor locations for long swathes of time. There is an ease in Fr. Ben’s deep bass voice and slight, Southern drawl to move effortlessly from the debate over vinegar or tomato-based barbeque sauce to explaining the significance of iconography through church history. Fr. Ben easily connects and makes friends.
Fr. Jonathon had high praise for Fr. Ben in his role at the Mission, calling him an advocate, mentor, pastor, and friend to lean on for anything he might need in ministry. One of the practical resources Fr. Ben has been able to offer the church plants in West Virginia and nationwide has been his “Foundations” catechism course which helps new congregants learn mere Christianity and the doctrinal Anglican way. It does not take long when around Fr. Ben to hear his passion to catechize through the Foundations course: “I want to take the Foundation course into every one of these parishes. I’m convinced that I’m never going to plant another church where we do not take the launch team through the Foundations course. It’s been absolutely transformational. We’ve seen people congeal as team relationships get formed. Everybody is together doctrinally and formed in the Anglican way, but mostly formed in mere Christianity.”
Fr. Ben shared glowingly about one of the church planting team members: “I’ve been coaching new church planters like the Rev. Nate Dickinson in Summersville, West Virginia. He’s got so much energy and enthusiasm and so many giftings. I just want to give him as much as I can of my experience to equip and help him avoid some of the pitfalls that I had to learn from in my mistakes.”
Standing on the panoramic overview of the gorgeous New River Gorge at Grandview National Park, the newly ordained Dickinson stepped right into Fr. Ben’s apt description of him with a contagious excitement saying, “I want people to meet Jesus. And there are people who do not know Jesus yet in Summersville, West Virginia. Therefore, I will go. There’s a family in Summersville, West Virginia that has traveled for three or four years at least an hour to find a church that loves Jesus; that celebrates Jesus; that keeps Jesus the main thing.
I want to serve them and go to them and say, ‘you can drive fifteen minutes to where you actually feel comfortable inviting your friends to church.’ We believe that when that happens that God is going to do something because he’s already doing something in Summersville with that family and a couple others. I know families who in Summersville feel homeless in church and I want to be a part of providing them a home in Jesus in Summersville.”
Likewise, the other church plants are offering Jesus and a church home in other parts of the state. “It’s been really rough the past few years,” said Kristin Harvey, parishioner at Christ the King Anglican in Beckley, West Virginia, “but after coming here, we heard the Gospel and I hadn’t heard the gospel in a long time. It was a breath of fresh air. I remember hearing that this place was like a hospital; it has been such a source of healing for me to hear other people’s struggles as well. It’s been an amazing thing for me.”
“This is God’s initiative,” said Fr. Ben. “God’s heart and love for people who have been overlooked, and in many ways denigrated. They’ve been put down, you know, at the butt end of jokes, but I see God just saying, ‘I love you. I cherish you. And to make this even more hilarious, I’m going to use a way of following Jesus that is often associated with privilege and prestige, that’s going to be the people who are going to lead you into this wonderful, flourishing life that I have for you.’”
Jed Walkup, a parishioner at Hope Church expressed a similar sentiment. “The people of West Virginia are an amazing and beautiful people and maybe don’t have a lot from the world’s perspective, and I think that is why God is doing something in and through the people of West Virginia.”
Fr. Ben and a group of leaders from Mission West Virginia gathered by the banks of the Kanawha River, with a beautiful view of the gold-leafed dome of the capitol in Charleston. A slick, Honda Gold Wing motorcycle rolled to a stop near the group, and the driver unzipped his fluorescent yellow and black jacket as he dismounted the bike. It seemed so typical until a white, clerical collar was revealed underneath with a large wooden cross dangling on the man’s chest. It was the Rev. Jim Sallie, Rector of Church of the Redeemer, Parkersburg, West Virginia – a bit of an unexpected sight. Fr. Jim joins the group, and they talk admiringly of his motorcycle and flame-patterned, pointed tip, cowboy boots. This group, this team from Mission West Virginia that Fr. Ben has come alongside, seem wired for taking on the unexpected in this recent Anglican development.
It’s hard to go too far in West Virginia without hearing or seeing reference to the lyrics in Denver’s song:
Take me home, country road. To the place I belong.
West Virginia, Mountain mama. Take me home, country road.
But maybe that country road is along the Anglican way, leading the people of West Virginia home to Jesus. As Fr. Jim described it, “They [the people of West Virginia] have experienced that this is not a personality-driven church. Most of our people would not have chosen, right off, the Anglican way of worship. Having experienced it though, it was like coming home to a place they’d never been.”