King Solomon once said that where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18). The founders of Believe in West Virginia decided to take the initiative to form a non-profit company designed to improve the economic attitude and future of West Virginia through Biblical guidance and dogged determination.
In short, this powerhouse of people plans to create jobs, not just minimal employment, but high-tech "living wage" jobs; and they are boldly talking about religion and revitalization in the same breath.
The businessmen and clergy are outlining, for the first time, the steps being taken toward a new industry born in a West Virginia University lab. This new invention could fill empty plants and facilities in the Mountain State with formerly unemployed or under-employed workers.
Heard this kind of hype before? Yes, but Believe in West Virginia genuinely trusts they have support from the highest-ranking official available. The founders believe this desire to build the state's economic self-esteem is a directive from God (the CEO) mysteriously threading together their individual paths and concretely paving the road toward this common goal.
Believe in West Virginia is the brainchild of Jack Henry, a former coal operator-turned-pastor with Boone and Logan County roots, who serves as president.
"What we really hope is that this will excite people about their faith (all denominations) and the future of this state," said Pastor Henry. "Creating jobs is not only about economic stability, it is about restoring one's dignity and pride. Every moral human being, Christian and non-Christian, should be enthused about and involved in accomplishing these goals."
Henry felt driven to pursue an economic growth plan more than 10 years ago, thinking that he should do something tangible to help the unemployed and oppressed of the area. At the time, he was an enthusiastic pastor in Boone County. Initially, he tried to coordinate a mammoth factory project that would utilize West Virginia hardwoods to produce elegantly crafted church pews, fine furniture, and hundreds of jobs. But he encountered many unsurmountable problems based on the personal agendas, jealousy, or greed of others.
Pastor Henry found the solution in a most unusual place. While he was visiting the sick and troubled in his pastoral role, he found the individual he was seeking to help, helped him instead.
"This man was having some personal problems. Because of his background, we began talking about trying to bring jobs to West Virginia," recalled Henry. "And then the man said, 'Pastor, you are going about this the wrong way. You are doing a Godly thing with ungodly people. You have to have Christian people behind and with you.' "
A man with ailing religious faith triggered a spiritual epiphany in the man who came to minister to him.
Henry thought about this concept (a Christ-based, prayer-motivated economic development group) and soon blurted out the idea to the MarketKeepers, a group of business professionals and clergy who meet weekly for prayer. He said people were a little hesitant at first because they had "never heard of such a thing."
As one member of the MarketKeepers group said, "Six months ago there was a vision in Jack's heart, and he was running around going, 'Does anybody care?' And here we are now. God got guys connected together."
"What was so astounding was that in re-investigating these economic opportunities, I found that all of these people were born-again Christians, who were very much turned on to doing something with their talent," said Henry. "God had already put into place people in industry, governmental agencies, WVU, and economic development organizations with the same goals. And this coalition will bring together all of these different threads and make us one giant fabric."
But you expect a minister to talk about spiritual inspiration, hope, and guidance. What about engineers, top industry leaders, and state economic development officials? These scientific, analytical, and enterprising professionals also have economic growth on their minds and God in their hearts.
The first new area of economic development on the agenda for Believe in West Virginia was presented by chemical engineer and retired Senior Corporate Fellow at Union Carbide, George Keller, Ph.D.
Keller says that he wanted to "give back to the community" when he retired in 1997 from Union Carbide, which is now Dow Chemical. He considered honorable projects, such as Meals on Wheels and soup kitchens. But then he thought about doctors and nurses treating patients in rural clinics, accountants helping people with their tax returns, and lawyers and paralegals doing pro bono work and he realized he might be able to apply his 40 years of training and practice in a creative way.
"I wasn't aware of many examples of retired chemical engineers doing engineering in a way that directly impacted their fellow citizens for the good," said Keller. "But some further reflection and prayer led me to believe that a worthy goal would be to help create some high-paying, high-tech jobs in the state."
That goal led to the formation of a new company, NewCarbon, Inc. Keller serves as Vice President, Patrick Bond as President, and Gary Brown, Ph.D., as Vice President of Engineering. NewCarbon just won a $100,000 grant from the Consortium for Premium Carbon Products from Coal, located at Penn State and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. NewCarbon, Inc. is also in the process of negotiating a contract with West Virginia University for exclusive commercial use of ground-breaking work developed there by a team of researchers and inventors.
As WVU chemical engineering department faculty and the research team forming the Carbon Products Program, John Zondlo, Ph.D., Al Stiller, Ph.D., and Peter Stansberry, Ph.D., have spent 15 years studying ways to use coal as a natural resource and as a precursor for high-tech products instead of fuel.
"We can take coal that you can get for $20 a ton and, by putting it through our process, we can sell it for up to $500 a ton," said Zondlo. The process they invented is used for developing coal pitch, which can be applied in the production of hundreds of industrial products including aircraft brakes, anodes for aluminum manufacturing, for personal protection in military applications, carbon foam for new insulation, and even golf clubs and tennis rackets.
"I think the thing that is exciting to us is the fact that George Keller and his group are forming a company to commercialize some of the products we have developed," said Zondlo. "Sometimes the technology we develop doesn't get commercialized. We are hoping that if these factories get built in West Virginia, then we can provide jobs and improve the standard of life. And we got involved with Jack Henry because his goals are the same."
"I'm certainly not questioning it," said Zondlo, the WVU researcher and inventor. "I'm a firm believer in God, and I am a firm believer that God leads us in certain directions. It's all kinds of people (who've come together)." He added with a laugh, "It's actually kind of spooky."
"I think it is far beyond coincidence," said Ted Kester, a member of Believe in West Virginia and president of Zion Inc., a utility contractor.
"I think it is the timing of a Higher Power - that would be God - who has everything in place."
NewCarbon, Inc. will use its grant money to finish up development work at WVU, design a business and economic plan and, eventually, install a small coal-pitch producing facility that will provide samples to a wide range of potential customers.
"The pitch-production facility itself would create, in all likelihood, fewer than 100 new jobs," said Keller. "Bur our vision is to cluster companies making many of the products from the pitch in the same general location. And these companies would ultimately create quite a few hundred high-paying jobs.
"For each manufacturing job or natural resource job, there are at least four more satellite jobs providing support equipment, energy, materials and supplies, and service people," Henry added, speaking in general terms. "So 1,000 manufacturing jobs would equal 4,000 satellite jobs."
Many more economic opportunities in manufacturing are also being actively explored by Believe in West Virginia.
Faith-based groups are usually giving away money, not trying to earn it by building businesses. When told about the group and its goals, David Satterfield, then-Executive Director of the West Virginia Development Office, said this group is creating a "community water cooler" that could produce successful businesses. "Folks (like that) are terrific resources and will help people through the baptism of fire of starting a business."
"From a national perspective, the economic development industry has realized there is a correlation between bringing in faith-based groups and seeing economic and educational development," said Joel Stopha, Manager-Forest Products Industry, for the West Virginia Development Office.
"The people in those organizations know what is going on in those communities and can garner a lot more support more quickly than a traditional local or state government organization."
This group is so united in their faith in the state, and in Christ, that they've put aside their denominational differences. The MarketKeepers prayer group and Believe in West Virginia are both made up of Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, and members of large independent churches.
"They are different denominations, different races, different genders, and different generations, but coming together with the concept that it is going to take all of us working together in concert to really make a difference where the difference needs to be made--in the community and in the marketplace," said Pastor Ron Thaxton of MarketKeepers and Church in the City, a Charleston ministerial association. The members of these two groups are not shy about their desire for statewide spiritual growth, as well as economic growth. "We believe that it is the Lord's desire to effect transformation of every aspect of our society--in the marketplace, schools, and government--and this cannot be accomplished from within the four walls of church buildings," said Pastor Thaxton.
So they are moving beyond the churches and taking it to the streets, the manufacturing plasnts, the university labs, the small businesses, and state and local government offices.
Although glad for the potential economic boost, some observers may be concerned that the group might push a religious agenda. Then-Governor Wise's top industry-magnet manager, Satterfield, compares the group's spiritual interests to the environmental interests of the successful ice cream company, Ben and Jerry's. He said that it is their "inside structure," and it causes him "no discomfort."
"They (Believe in West Virginia) are eligible for every service and opportunity the state has to offer," continued Satterfield. "What their fundamental values are is their decision, and it doesn't give me any heartburn at all."
"I come at it from the other standpoint," said Stopha. "I think, being a state employee, that it is just as oppressive that I can't express my religious beliefs in my work environment. They (Believe in West Virginia) are just providing an opportunity for people to better themselves economically. Anything else will manifest itself. There certainly won't be any required attendance at church or required donations for certain charities."
"Christianity has nothing to do with needing a job," said Henry succinctly, when questioned about their approach. Any naysayers who might suggest that these are business people first and Christians second might note Keller's approach to this. While settling rates for the grant application, he cut his normal rate by 75%. It doesn't appear he's taken on this project to build his post-retirement portfolio. "I'm not in this thing to make money," he said. "I am in this to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. This might sound overly pious but, no kidding, that's the way it happened."
"Whether these folks have tremendous success or they don't accomplish what they wish, what I'm hoping this group will do is show that people have hope and faith in West Virginia," said Satterfield. "We have some small challenges, and we do have big challenges, but they are not terminal."
"If it's motivated by compassion, we believe we'll get the enabling power from God Himself," said Henry. "Our motive has to be that we are out to please Him."
The man who suggested the group's name said the moniker summarizes its purpose. "Have faith; believe," said Jim Workman. "Believe in your state. Believe in God's plan for you and your state."