Almost Heaven


Sometimes going home seems like an uphill climb, but the youth of West Virginia are strong climbers.

Arms pumping hard, Mark and Brian Chapell race up the hillside on a concrete stairway. Their long legs devour two and three steps at a time. Neckties flap as they struggle for the lead, competing as only brothers can. Two hundred steps to go. One hundred. Fifty. With a final lunge, they crash against the missionaries’ door in a dead heat.

A few minutes later they’re walking up and down the streets of Welch, West Virginia, with the full-time missionaries, sharing the light at the center of their lives.

Walk along with them, and they’ll tell you a thing or two about the Welch Branch of the Church. First of all, they’ll tell you that life here is a series of ups and downs. The branch encompasses McDowell and Wyoming counties, and flat ground is as rare as a Mormon with time on his hands.

They’ll tell you that this is Appalachian country. The mountains here are wrinkled with innumerable narrow valleys called hollows. Only in these valleys can towns or cities be built. If a city is very large, it must spread up several hollows to find a place for itself. Each of these arms of the city will be totally invisible from the others. A whole city can be seen only from high overhead. With space scarce on the valley floors, homes must run up the sides of the mountains, house on house, until sometimes they resemble cliff dwellings.

Walking past tall churches, your guides will exclaim that their mountain home is beautiful. Lush forests cover the slopes. Clear streams and rivers come frothing down the valleys over tumbled boulders. The tall hills hold sunrise until late and bring sundown early. In summer the sun comes filtered through a million leaves, clouds drift up the hollows, and a bird seems to sing in every tree. In the winter, the trees become snowy skeletons in a gray mist of branches.

There are forests under the ground here too, pressed and squeezed in the darkness into rich veins of coal.

Mark and Brian will tell you about their LDS friends over in Pineville in Wyoming County, the other half of the branch, and how Welch High and Pineville High may be rivals, but the kids are buddies. They’ll tell you about the old truck Mike is fixing up and how Scott’s doing on his tennis team, and about the scholarship pageant where Angie told the judges why she wants to go on a mission.

If their appointments permit, they’ll take you to the beautiful new chapel on a Welch hillside. The members in Pineville have to drive 40 miles to get there over a winding, two-lane highway. In bad weather—the deep snow and fog of winter or the heavy rains of summer—it can be dangerous sharing the road with the monstrous coal trucks around slippery curves.

They’ll tell you about the many years when the Saints met in a dilapidated old building high on a hillside. It was held to the mountain by a metal cable running right through the chapel. The members called it their iron rod. Once the roof caved in during Mutual, narrowly missing several people. Snakes sometimes found their way into one of the classrooms, and were gently carried out, giving rise to neighborhood rumors about strange LDS forms of worship. In the wintertime the members sat huddled in blankets listening to blanket-wrapped speakers and teachers. Each gospel truth came out in a puff of white mist. When it came time to move to a nicer building, the youth of the ward did their part with several fund-raising hot dog sales.

They’ll tell you about the area’s religious climate and how it once turned chilly. Ideologically speaking, Welch and Pineville are located somewhere near the buckle of the Bible Belt. There’s a church on almost every block. Families can trace their membership in one congregation or another back for generations. These devout neighbors have sometimes had a little trouble accepting the Christian credentials of the Latter-day Saints.

A couple of years ago an anti-Mormon group sprang up in the area, preaching against the Church over the radio and in local congregations. The members responded with an unusual tactic—love. Instead of arguing, they showed increased friendship for their detractors. Instead of boycotting the businesses of these people, they went out of their way to patronize them. They prayed sincerely for the members of the group, both in meetings and privately. They came to dearly love their critics, because the branch had never been more united. As for the opposition group, it melted away without a trace, and some of the Church’s bitterest enemies became its friends.

The Chapell brothers will also tell you about school, where the LDS teenagers constitute a tiny minority. As a minority group, they face two challenges, one welcome and one not. The welcome one is the devout Christianity of many of their fellow students. These young Protestants have studied the Bible practically from the cradle, and if you want to discuss religion with them, you’d better know your stuff. The unwelcome challenge arises from less-religious peers who indulge in drugs, alcohol, dishonesty, unchastity, and various other vices.

In this environment, young men who lack the faded circle that a snuff can wears on a back pocket are sure to be noticed. Several nonmember mothers have told daughters they could go to the prom only with an LDS boy.

And finally, these youth missionaries will tell you about home-study seminary, and how it helps them reach out with love and respect to their nonmember friends. It’s so effective that 4 of the 17 current seminary students are investigators.

Come back to the chapel on Thursday and meet the other seminary students. They get together weekly except when deep snow interferes. Once a month the students travel to Virginia for a Super Saturday, a trip of up to five hours one way for some of them.

First- through fourth-year students meet in one class, so some of them are now in their fourth course of study, and some only in the first. But all have learned truths that enrich their lives.

“The scripture chases have really helped me,” says Karen Blaisdell. “They answer a lot of questions that people from other religions ask you.”

Brian Chapell agrees. “I was talking about religion with a girl who sits next to me at school. Some of the stuff I told her I remembered from seminary, from the Book of Mormon and the Bible. She asked me questions about the Godhead, and I was able to explain our beliefs.”

Lana Blaisdell says, “I had a friend who lost a loved one, and she really didn’t understand about life after death. Through the gospel I was able to help her understand that death is not the end and that relationships could continue into the next life.”

Scott Laxton says, “I’ve grown closer to the Savior. Before studying the New Testament I didn’t know how much he suffered for us.”

In spite of such lofty examples, living the gospel on a day-to-day basis can be quite a challenge.

“There are only a few Mormons at school,” Mark Chapell says, “and it’s tough because you feel like an oddball. Then you come here to seminary, and you don’t feel like an oddball anymore.”

Mike Laxton adds, “It may sound easy to say no to your friends, but when you get in front of them it’s one of the hardest things you can do. We need all the help we can get from the Lord and from each other.”

Each other. It’s one of the main reasons these young men and women can stay so faithful. “Sometimes I get feeling really down,” Angie Cantrell says, “and they always pick me up and put me back on my feet. There’s so much love here.”

Although they work hard at resisting temptation, these young people do not see the gospel as a maze of “thou shalt nots.” They know that the goal of obedience is freedom, and they rejoice in gifts that only the faithful are free to enjoy.

“There are a lot of suicides because teenagers can’t cope with their problems,” says Mark Chapell. “Through the gospel, we can cope. We have the gift of the Holy Ghost, so when we pray we can actually receive revelation.”

Brian Chapell says, “One thing we can do in the Church that our friends can’t is go to the temple and do baptisms for the dead. Our friends may feel free to go places that we won’t, but they can’t go to the temple. Who’s missing more?”

Ashley Davis says, “One of the greatest blessings of the gospel is that we can be sealed to our parents in the temple. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that you can be with them in the next life.”

Another blessing comes in the form of their seminary teacher. “Sister Laxton doesn’t just help us with seminary,” Lisa Toller says. “She helps us with life.”

And Lea Gonzales adds, “She’s the most caring person I know.”

For her part, Sister Laxton is “amazed at their spiritual strength.”

“Some people claim that ‘Everybody’s doing it,’” she says, “but these kids can say, ‘Not everybody. I’m not doing it, and I’ve got all these friends who aren’t doing it.’

“If one of them shows signs of getting off the strait and narrow, the others help him back. You can’t take the gospel for granted here. You just don’t stay in the Church around here unless you’re really committed. These young men and women are committed.”

Some of the students have to travel a long way home after seminary—others only a few blocks. But their routes all share one thing in common. They all have to climb to get home. Some will climb mountains in their cars. Others will climb long stairways up hillsides or apartments. But they all have to climb. They’re used to that. They love their mountain home, but it is not always an easy place to live for a Latter-day Saint. Sometimes they must feel like going home to their Father in Heaven is an uphill climb. But they’re all strong climbers, and they welcome the challenge.

A popular song calls the mountains of West Virginia “almost heaven,” and the Latter-day Saint youth of the Welch Branch think that’s pretty close to the truth. After all, they’re trying hard to be the kind of people who will live here when the whole earth becomes the highest heaven of all.

[photos] Photography by Wes Taylor

[photos] Life in the Appalachian country of West Virginia is a series of ups and downs. You can’t get home, to seminary, to the tennis courts, or go tracting with the missionaries without climbing and descending stairs, hills, and hollows.

[photos] Seminary in the Appalachians is a home-study affair, but the youth do get together every Thursday, except when deep snow interferes. Four out of the 17 students are non-LDS, and everyone lives for the Super-Saturday activities they hold once a month with youth in Virginia.

[photos] The Welch Branch covers two counties. While the branch’s youth go to rival high schools, they’re good friends just the same. Some members have to travel a long way for church, but they love the camaraderie they share once they get there.