WEST VIRGINIA Island goes from trash to treasure
A couple's dream turned a garbage-laden island into a Christian campground.
By ELLEN J. LIST
Priscella Smith was convinced she could go to the bank to get a loan to buy an island full of trash.
She was right; she got the loan, with no collateral.
That faith helps explain why Paradise Island, home of God's Wilderness Campground and Christian Retreat Getaway, will be host of its 26th Gospel Sing next weekend. The campground, in southern West Virginia, has about four such events a year.
"My papa taught me that faith is reaching for a handful of air and holding on 'til something is there," she said.
For years, Priscella, a gospel pianist, and her husband, Mike, a former coal miner, had a dream of owning a place where they would be free to tell others about Jesus.
That dream soon took on the form of the island, where people had been dumping waste illegally. In 1992, their dream came true with the purchase of the island from a land company and CSX Railroad.
"I learned quickly the difference between dumping and trash," Priscella said. "Trash is surface. Dumping is ... [well], it was 6 to 12 feet deep out there."
Five months, 6,000 trash bags, 40 pairs of gloves and 10 semi truckloads of trash later, the Smiths could see land, and others noticed, too.
In 1994, then-Gov. Gaston Caperton presented the Smiths with the highest award for any individual that year for cleaning up 21 separate dumps on the island, which is now their home.
The Smiths then dedicated the reclaimed island to God and began holding events.
Performing: Twelve gospel groups, including the Jackson Harmony from Churchill, Tenn., the New Jerusalem Singers from Logan, W.Va., and Bobby Fletcher from Kentucky, are expected to draw between 800 and 1,200 people to Paradise Island for the three-day event.
On Friday and Aug. 25, at the close of the day, a play called "The Footsteps of Jesus" will be performed on the campground's Passion Trail. The 2 1/2-hour play consists of scenes enacted by some 30 actors along a candlelit trail. More than 13,000 people have walked the trail reliving the Biblical scenes from the manger to the cross and beyond.
The island offers a bit of everything -- from camping sites to a 30-ton boulder on display with naturally occurring markings that appear to be the image of Christ in prayer. The boulder was found in 1985 during blasting at a coal mine and was moved to the campground.
In addition, the year-round campground plays host to school field trips and seasonal festivals, and to people fishing in the Guyandotte River.
International visitors: People from all over the United States, as well as from France, Australia, Africa and Canada, have visited "the island in the middle of nowhere," as Priscella so lovingly calls it, for its faith events.
But the Smiths aren't done.
They are still reaching out, believing and working on plans for an amphitheater for more faith productions at Paradise Island.