HE SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST CHURCH in Summersville, West Virginia, as some might picture it, is not a sleepy congregation gently tucked into the hills of Appalachia away from the bright lights of the big city. Instead, this active and growing church brightens the rural community with the love of Jesus, playing a vibrant role in its daily life. Summersville is a small town—the population is just under 3,500—but the Adventist congregation there has wide-open arms that not only reach out to, but also partner with, the community in which they minister.
Wesley and Judy Olson, together with Jack and Marlys Jacobson, planted the Adventist church in Summersville in 1976. Later they were joined by a third couple, Steve and Donna Shank.
Church planting wasn’t fashionable in North America in the 70s; the limelight was instead on intense theological debate. These highly skilled and educated young couples focused on the practical application of the gospel—service to others.
An Idea Takes Root
Before coming to Summersville, all three couples were medical missionaries—the Olsons and the Shanks in Guam, and the Jacobsons in Okinawa. Even before returning to the United States, each wondered where God could use them for mission in their homeland. They longed to bring their medical skills, along with the Adventist message, to an area of the U.S. that most needed them. They also wanted to rear their children in a rural area.
“A map appearing in the Adventist Review in the 1970s listing dozens of ‘dark’ counties in the United States where there were no Adventist congregations provided further impetus to our idea,” Judy recalls.
After doing much research, writing to medical societies in areas coinciding with the dark areas of that map, and planning their strategy, the Olsons and the Jacobsons began a six-week driving
tour across the country, beginning in California and stopping at each place marked off as a possible settlement to begin their mission work. Children were in tow, with a baby on the way. Judy was pregnant and scheduled to deliver in six weeks, so timing was tight.
“During our trip across the United States there had been no clear-cut direction from the Lord as to where He wanted us to go and no consensus among us,” Judy says. “But while in Silver Spring, Maryland [where the Olsons’ baby was delivered], we visited with Thomas Mostert, who was president of the Mountain View Conference at the time. His words to us rang home. He said, ‘All I can offer you in West Virginia is a need.’”
For these missionary-minded families, this was just what they were looking for—a need. After checking out Summersville, as suggested by Mostert, they prayerfully decided this was the place the Lord was leading them.
Drs. Wesley and Jack began working nights in the community hospital’s emergency room—for the “exorbitant” salary of $12 an hour—and invited friends and coworkers to study the Bible with them. And from that proverbial “tiny acorn,” a sturdy Adventist “oak tree” grew.
Today, more than three decades later, Summersville boasts not only an Adventist church of approximately 90 members; the congregation also operates a food pantry, a child-development center called Friends-R-Fun, an adult education program, a gymnasium, and a health education program. It also continues to be closely involved with a free medical clinic, established for families in financial need and who have no health insurance.
Opened in 1990, the food pantry now serves more than 350 families in the community each month. About 150 children are enrolled in the state-licensed and nationally accredited child-care center, now 20 years old.
“When we began the child-care program in 1986, we had a capacity for up to 15 children,” says Judy, the volunteer director of the program. “We ran it out of one room in the church basement, which doubled as our child-care facility during the week and our children’s Sabbath school classroom on the weekends.”
The child-care center now operates out of nine different area classrooms and is managed by 30 full- and part-time staff. An adult General Educational Development (GED) program was opened in 1994; it’s still offered free to the community, and attendance varies from three to 16 at one time.
“We’ve added only programs that were clearly needed by the community,” Judy notes. “When we first began the adult education program, more than a third of the residents of Nicholas County did not have a high school diploma. Coal mining is big here, and kids would figure, ‘Why finish school when you can go out and get a good-paying job in the coal mines?’”
She adds, “The idea was to make it a family literacy program so adults could come and study at the same site and place as their children.”
The Nicholas County Health Department, Summersville Memorial Hospital, and the local high school’s board of education all partnered with the Adventist group to open the medical clinic. The idea for the clinic was first conceived when Wesley Olson was providing free medical service to the child-care staff who couldn’t afford health-care coverage.
“The free clinic was established to target people who get lost in the cracks,” Judy says. “They are trying to make it on their own, but they have no medical insurance nor can they afford it on their own because their jobs are low paying.”
Today the clinic is still operating on the church-owned property, but is now being run by another organization.
The Community Buys In
Community involvement is a large part of the outreach and service programs. Two non-Adventist teachers, David Smith and Amber Willis, run the adult education program. Patty Bright, a member of the Friends-R-Fun board of directors, volunteers at the center and teaches nutrition and cooking classes. Only three of the Friends-R-Fun staff members are Adventists.
“Touching the lives of others, seeing [them] grow toward self-awareness and self-confidence, are rewards that cannot be measured,” Patty says. “I believe that if somehow I have touched another human being, that is my reward.”
“We couldn’t run [the center] without our board and without all the community people who are part of our staff,” Judy says. “They are wonderful people. And we have seen some of them accept the Lord through the influence of working here.”
Others may well come to faith through the influence of the children themselves. Judy says the staff is up-front about being a Christian organization, so parents are not surprised by this after enrolling the children.
“We have worship every day in which we sing songs and tell Bible stories,” Judy says, “and the children influence their parents. Some parents tell us their children will not let them sit down to eat until they stand behind their chair and say a prayer of thanks, because that is what we teach them at the center. We’ve had children come and say that they are going to church now. . . . If we can introduce [the children] to a God who loves them and to whom they can pray, I believe we are fulfilling a crucial part of our mission.”
Judy concedes that most of those who work with the programs do not join the Adventist Church, but emphasizes that some do.
“We had a family who initially brought their child to our child-care center,” Judy says, “who was then later enrolled at the Adventist elementary school. During that period of time they became Adventists.
“One of our other ministries in the adult education program is a parenting class taught by our previous pastor, Larry Boggess [now president of the Mountain View Conference],” she adds. “He became acquainted with Dale Ward, who was taking the GED class, and . . . Dale and his wife, Beverly, are now faithful members of the church.”
“If you want to see things change in your life, trust Christ for everything,” Dale says. “I have to thank God every day for what He has done for Beverly and me.”
Throughout the years, the Summersville group says it has learned the principle of “divine timing.”
About 1980 the Jacobsons left Summersville and moved to California so Jack could do his residency in obstetrics. Drs. Olson and Shank, therefore, needed additional help.
“One day at the office I was finishing up paperwork when the phone rang,” Wesley Olson recounts. “I usually don’t answer the phone, but this time I did. I found myself talking to Mark Wantz, a Loma Linda graduate who was scrolling down a list of opportunities for practice. My sense is that if I had not answered the phone that day, the Wantzses would be ministering somewhere else.”
Wantz confirms he is serving in Summersville today because Wesley answered that phone call. “I would have continued down my list otherwise,” he says.
About two years later, another physician couple, Bruce and Sunita Greenberg, joined the congregation as well.
The fledgling church’s agenda always highlighted community service. “By 1986 we were standing around our kitchen island asking, ‘What could our church do to contribute to this community?’” Judy recalls. “By then we had a small group that was meeting first in homes, and later on a piece of property that the Jacobsons bought and put a double-wide mobile home on. Then we built the medical clinic. Everything we ever built had a lot of volunteer labor that went into it, including our homes.”
After the medical clinic was constructed, the lobby, and later the basement, served as the location for weekly worship. A local Methodist church was rented while the pioneer Adventists saw their own church being erected.
“The church in Summersville, except for the vestibule, was built totally by volunteer laborers,” Judy says. “I remember nobody knew anything about framing up [a building], and then God sent us a pastor, Fred Rogers, who had been a contractor before going into the ministry. So God just gave us the people we needed at the time.”
Wesley and Judy say the Lord always provided essential help and encouragement at just the right times. For instance, Wesley says, “a patient who had never been in our church evidently knew we were building it. She told me she had a dream that she visited and fell down the stairs because they weren’t finished yet. The stairs, in fact, weren’t finished, but there was no way she could have known that.”
Before she left, the patient “handed me a $100 check to finish the stairs,” Wesley says.
A year after the medical clinic opened in 1978, the Adventist school was launched in a one-room building that had formerly been a slaughterhouse.
“We started the elementary school because between the Jacobsons and ourselves, we had six kids,” Judy says. The school later was moved to the church basement.
Building a Strong Foundation
From the beginning of their ministry in Summersville, church members have attempted to determine the needs in the community and work together with community leaders to establish the
programs. They say focusing on actual needs expressed by residents helps win support for the projects.
“When we first came up with the idea of a child-care center, my task was to go to the community leaders—one-on-one—to the county commissioners, the Chamber of Commerce president, the ministerial association, the mayor,” Judy notes. “As the contacts were made, not only did we learn more of the needs but we also discovered the community wanted to partner with us in meeting those needs.”
Fifty percent of the Friends-R-Fun board of directors is made up of community residents who are not members of the Adventist Church.
A life of faith, trust in God, and a commitment to mission comprise the foundation on which the work of the Adventist members in Summersville is built. Why else would a small rural church in the heart of West Virginia embark on a building project worth well over $1 million with seed money of only $1,000 and no idea of where the rest would come from?
But incredible as that is, the Olsons say “the story isn’t about buildings; it’s about people—the lives we have been privileged to touch in service, the wonderful community people we have been able to work with, and the way the Lord has worked to increase our own faith and enrich our lives.”
“And,” Judy adds, “this is only the beginning of the story.”
Jean Kellner was an editorial assistant for the
Adventist Review when she wrote this article. She now works for Adventist World Radio, headquartered at the General Conference office in Silver Spring, Maryland.