From as early as I can remember, three large crosses have stood on the north side of Interstate 81, alone in a cow pasture, just a few minutes east of Fort Chiswell, Virginia.
As a child, I always appreciated seeing these magnificent and larger than life crosses, though at the time, I cannot say that I fully understood the meaning of that most Holy symbol, nor did I realize the sheer effort required to plant those consecrated reminders across the nation.
The story of America’s roadside crosses, the ones that have the two white crosses on the outside with a single yellow cross in the middle, begins humbly enough on January 27, 1925, in Craigsville, West Virginia.
On this date, a young child named Bernard Coffindaffer was born.
Raised by his father and stepmother, the young West Virginian would join the military at the age of sixteen.
Serving in the United States Marine Corps during the turbulent years of World War II, Coffindaffer provided for the defense of his nation for a period of six years; seeing active duty in the Pacific Theater, fighting at the bloody battle for the island of Iwo Jima, as well as serving in the occupation force at Nagasaki, Japan, following the end of hostilities.
Following his military service, the Marine returned to the Mountain State and worked in the years that followed, eventually earning a degree an associate degree from what was then Morris Harvey College (now University of Charleston.
Now a college graduate, the young entrepreneur found work in the oil industry, serving as a salesperson for a Charleston-based company.
In the years that followed, Coffindaffer would create a side business that specialized in washing coal. This proved to be lucrative and garnered the West Virginia native what some have described as a “small fortune.”
Married, with four children, the Craigsville native’s life would take an abrupt turn at the age of forty-two, when the World War II veteran knelt and softly asked Jesus to become his personal Saviour. Though he had heard the story of the cross thousands of times throughout his life, this time something seemed different. Something seemed real about the cross and the wealthy industrialist soon developed a true passion for the cross of Calvary.
In the days ahead, Coffindaffer’s concerns would wane from increasing profits to reaching souls with the message of the cross.
Soon, the Appalachian resident had professed to friends and family that he had been called to serve as a preacher to forgotten Appalachian churches – ministering at seven different small churches in Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
After two heart by-pass operations, Coffindaffer liquidated his business and two years later had what he called a “genuine, marvelous, glorious vision,” stating, “The Holy Spirit instructed, blessed, and dealt with me and told me how to go about installing these crosses. It was an experience you have once in a lifetime.”
The following decades were spent gathering manpower, materials and resources to plant crosses alongside major highways all across America.
The first clusters of crosses were planted in September 1984 and in the years ahead more than 2,000 crosses were installed in the United States, Zambia and the Philippines.
According to family members, the crosses were “wooden, fashioned from telephone poles” and originally blue and gold.
In his final decade of life, Coffindaffer exhausted his earned wealth, spending more than $3-million on the project.
In a 1991 interview, the minister announced, “The crosses are to remind people to remember that Jesus was crucified on a cross at Calvary for our sins, and He will soon return.”
Sadly, the project came to an abrupt end on October 8, 1993, as the 68-year-old suffered a heart attack at this home in Craigsville.
More than 21 years have passed since Coffindaffer has laid eyes on any of his crosses, which at the time of his death had been planted in 29 states.
Today, the vast majority of the Christian symbols he scattered across the nation are broken down and in disrepair.
One woman, Sara Stevenson Abraham, has stepped in to continue the West Virginian’s work. She has formed a non-profit organization entitled Crosses Across America, Inc., headquartered in Vicksburg, Mississippi. The group is dedicated to locating the standing clusters of crosses and “getting them straightened, repaired, and restored.” Abraham presents the story of the crosses for churches, civic organizations, television, and radio programs.
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