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Bearing witness
Group picks up cross-building effort begun by Nicholas County preacher 15 years ago
Sunday June 4, 2000

 

FLATWOODS - A little more than 15 years ago, here on a windy rise along Interstate 79, the Rev. Bernard Coffindaffer and a small group of followers set their first cluster of crosses. One gold, flanked by lesser pale blue replicas. Christ and the two thieves.

Their work that day would begin a journey lasting several years, a whirlwind tour of the eastern United States, with side trips to the Philippines and Africa. In 1993, after having spent his millions on 1,842 sets of crosses, Coffindaffer, 68, died ... as did his quest.

Although he had wanted to continue his mission, by all accords, his witness was complete, his charge from God carried out. The crosses were there for all to see.

These days, though, Coffindaffer's dream has a distinct bent. A leaning. A tilt.

The crosses are starting to fall.

Like a vision, the lone man came walking across the field.

His gaze was fixed on Pat McGraw, standing at the far reaches of her expansive garden. McGraw sought solitude. She was upset that the man was coming to interrupt her peace ... to steal her breath.

It was stress that brought on McGraw's sudden bout of asthma. Just having someone close to her was like a weight on her chest. A religious woman, McGraw had often looked skyward in times of trouble, and this was no different.

In fact, the day before, as she looked upon a set of the roadside crosses that were beginning to dot West Virginia hillsides, she had silently yearned for a set of her own. A visible way to express her faith.

The man was upon her now. Strong looking. Salt-and-pepper hair. Thick-rimmed glasses ... Coffindaffer.

The year was 1985 and the eccentric Nicholas County preacher was a year into his mission.

McGraw was amazed that her prayer had been answered so quickly. "I just wanted to shout," she recalled. Days later, three crosses stood at the far end of her land.

The asthma waned. Life around her home and nursery business gradually returned to normal. And now she had her crosses.

Today, medical problems have again beset the 66-year-old, but she has faith. She talks of adding more greenhouses. Flowers hang from every possible hook or peg around her home and adjoining business, enticing customers and passers-by on W.Va. 39, who watch each year as her garden greens over and reaches up.

She meticulously cares for her crosses. They stand as straight as the day they were set. In May, as she has done for the past several years, she planted 20 flats of marigolds in the shape of the cross at the foot of her prized witness.

As she stands amid the bounty in her back yard, a pet rooster struts a tight circle around her, its 2-inch spurs passing precariously close to her bare feet and ankles, but she pays it no mind. She's looking off across the garden, a football field long, at the three crosses in the distance.

A yellowed
newspaper clipping

For every landowner like Pat McGraw, there are many more who pay Coffindaffer's dream little mind. Often, crosses set on mining company property or rugged hillsides have gone untouched since the day they were christened. And people are beginning to notice.

For much of her adult life, Sara Abraham was happy to be a housewife and mother. Then she heard her name called. One day as she sat reading, a yellowed newspaper clipping stored for several years between the pages of her Bible fell to the floor. As she bent to retrieve it and saw the familiar headline, "Cross crusade disappears with death of founder," she suddenly realized her days as a housewife were over.

Today she leads a small Vicksburg, Miss., ministry dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of the Coffindaffer crosses.

Christian Crosses Inc. (soon to be renamed Crosses Across America) seeks to raise the necessary funds to (1) help landowners reset or repaint their crosses, and (2) continue the quest along every major road in North America. Its Web site (www.chris
tiancrosses.org) goes as far as providing exact formulas to match the original paint.

Abraham has received all of Coffindaffer's old files, and with the help of a few dozen volunteers, is working to contact every landowner who allowed the reverend's followers to erect a set of crosses on their land.

"We're asking them to repair their crosses and to send us updated information on their site," Abraham said. "And if they cannot do it, to let us know, so we can contact churches in their area to gather volunteers and make repairs. Up to this point I have never had a church refuse."

Abraham has engineering friends in Vicksburg who are working to find a plastic alternative to the wooden crosses. Existing crosses weigh 400 pounds each; a lighter version would be cheaper to ship across the nation.

"There are 45,000 miles of interstate highways in North America," Abraham said. "The first building phase involves placing crosses along highways at 50-mile intervals - on both sides - which means crosses every 25 miles. Then we will venture on to other major thoroughfares.

"Our ultimate goal is to cover America with crosses."

Abraham's group will soon begin a nationwide fund-raising campaign to carry on its adopted mission. They will target Christian television, publications and foundations for advertising or donations.

Sensitive to the argument that the crosses mar natural beauty, Abraham said a recent trip to Alaska made her realize that blue and gold crosses might not be for everyone or everywhere. In places where naturalists might not appreciate her efforts, she suggests crosses suited to fit the area - perhaps a natural wood tone.

Aside from this, however, she calls the crosses a subtle reminder. "A witness to what Jesus did for all of us. ... A witness not only to the non-Christians, but a reminder to the Christians."

Christianity's
evangelical side

Coffindaffer wasn't the first person, particularly in the South, who felt an urge to display his faith by the side of the road.

Following a severe 1918 coal mining injury, 18-year-old Harrison H. Mayes asked for God's help and pledged that if he pulled through, he would dedicate his life to his servitude. The Kentucky man's wounds healed, and after a few failed attempts at preaching and gospel singing, he took up sign-painting, using rocks and trees as his canvas to spread the Lord's word.

Later, his mission evolved into 1,400-pound concrete monuments, proclaiming "Jesus is Coming" to passing motorists.

Mayes was prolific and the highways of the South were his prime targets. In his spare time, mainly during the 1940s, Mayes crafted special signs that were to be preserved until the 1990s, when he presumed they could be shipped and erected on other planets.

Mayes was a common laborer and used money as it came in for his monuments. He died in 1986, shortly after Coffindaffer began his expedition.

Loyal Jones, retired director of the Appalachian Center at Berea (Ky.) College, is fascinated by people who want to make a witness, but even more so by those who find a way to do it.

"In Christianity, you have this sort of evangelical side that requires you to make a witness and get the word out," Jones explained. "It's based in a concern that if you don't get word to all the infidels, they're going to hell."

Jones said the South is more sentimental about religion and tends to produce the nation's Coffindaffers or Mayeses. "You see the bumper stickers all over cars in the South: ‘Honk if You Love Jesus.' It's all the same thing."

Jones doesn't put much stock in the argument that the crosses steal from natural vistas. "You could say the same thing about a church, if that's the case."

The hope
for foreverness

A telephone call to the Charlotte, N.C., home of Destal Hanna Jr. is greeted by the usual pleasantries, but in the background, the voices of a practicing gospel group gently creep through the receiver. Not an unexpected evening in the home of the man who spent three years on the road, working for Coffindaffer, working for God.

Coffindaffer's neighbor in the Craigsville area of Nicholas County, Hanna led the charge, taking part in both the northern and southern expeditions of the reverend's cross-setting crew.

Hanna said it was Coffindaffer's plan for workers to revisit each site for straightening and painting every two years. But the money he had made in the coal business had dried up. Upon Coffindaffer's death, his Cast Thy Bread ministry was penniless.

Hanna moved to North Carolina 10 years ago to teach school. On his trips home, along Interstate 77, he sees the crosses that he helped set and fondly recalls days past. He sees the ones that are leaning, too. The ones that need repainting.

"I've checked on some down here. Made sure the brush was away from them," he said. "But without knowing the landowners, anymore ... it's difficult."

He's pleased that another group is picking up the cause, but, for him, it is the original crosses that will always carry the most weight. The days of working dawn till dusk, the elation when yet another landowner gave permission for a new set of crosses, the prayer at the base of every new cluster ...

"We were hoping they would last forever."

To contact Christian Crosses Inc., call (601) 619-0169.

To contact staff writer Robert J. Byers, use e-mail or call 348-1236.

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