Jolo - A New Beginning - chuckrayconner

Church of the Lord Jesus – A new Beginning?

It was Saturday, August 11, 2007. It had been eight months since my last visit to Jolo, by far the longest span of time in seven years.

Since my visit in December of 2006 I had traveled to India and Nepal to continue our work on the service projects in the rural mountainous areas.

I also had the pleasure of hiking the Grand, Zion and Bryce canyons of the southwest with my daughter Kara and a small group.

Bob Elkins had passed away on March 14th of this year, just three days before I left the country. It was difficult not being able to attend his funeral to say a last goodbye but of course he lives on in those he left behind and the legacy he left as one of the most preeminent pastors of the “Serpent Handlers”.

I had been meaning to get back down to Jolo but sometimes our own lives need tending to and the opportunities seem to slip away. Several months ago my friends Laura and Pierre from Brooklyn, NY contacted me about meeting up in Jolo. They are both currently finishing up their masters degrees and were as pressed for time as me, but we were determined to make this happen. Laura had been able to attend Bob’s service and video and photograph the event. They wanted to return and distribute the video and of course to see all of our friends there.

I left my home just before 10 am and got to Don and Connie’s at 1 pm. There was a note on the door that they would be back by 1:30. The previous night had been long and I was tired so tried to take a nap on the short deck furniture but kept getting my toes, arms and face licked by the dogs. It was about 85+ degrees. We have been in the thick of a very hot spell as has much of the country and it is difficult in itself to find relief from its intensity and adding hot, moist dog saliva doesn’t help much.

Don and Connie arrived back around 3 pm. They had run into Laura and Pierre at the Wal-Mart in Welch. They told me that Laura and Pierre were going to take Dewey Chafin to see Betty Johnson at the personal care home near Welch. They had also relayed that there was to be a service at the church that evening. I was surprised at this news. During my last visit the church had been ransacked and was near bare except for the pews, only a few photos remained, of the instruments only the drums remained, and it was beginning to smell of mold. Dewey had replaced some of the guitars but they too were stolen in the early spring. Don, Connie and I discussed whether the service was actually going to happen.

Unknown to us was the fact that there have been intermittent services there under the leadership of a new pastor. I left for Jolo around 5 pm to see Aileen, Bob’s widow and return some personal photo albums to Melissa Evans. They were of the church services dating back to the early 1970’s. I had intended to copy them but that opportunity slipped by. Don and Connie were going to meet me at the church, with services beginning at 7:30.

When I stopped by Aileen’s, only her daughter Hope and her husband Dale were there. I visited a few minutes and Hope told me where to touch base with Aileen. She was up the road about a mile or so caring for a woman on Turkey Branch. When I got there Aileen was waiting for me outside. We spoke briefly outside, with her eyes filling with tears as I asked how she was holding up. It has been rough for her. She had lost her brother very shortly before Bob passed and has essentially had to face the grieving process alone. We went inside for a little while and I met the woman she does chores for. She was very nice and explained that she had been disabled by a stroke. She had been married for 60+ years, her husband passed a few years ago and they had lived in that house which she and her husband had built in 1955. I said goodbye to Aileen and promised to come and visit again. She is a good woman but was not embraced by the family when she and Bob got married. That was a rough time for her also.

My next stop was at the Evans home. I had been told that Melissa was going to Richlands, Va. for a church service but I still needed to try and return the albums. I didn’t see anyone there and left a note on the door but almost got bit by the family dog, a fairly large, black mixed breed whose teeth looked menacing when bared. As I was leaving, Richard, Melissa’s husband came out on the upper deck. He had heard the dog. I went in to drop of the albums and again offer my apology for having them so long. I couldn’t stay as the church service was to begin soon. The Evans family has been good to me. Their sons Nathan and Tyler always want me to stay and do things with them and Richard has taken me into the mountains and taught me how to catch rattlesnakes and copperheads for the services. I told him hat I would stop in next time I’m down.

The church is just a five minute drive from the Evan’s home which used to be home to Bob and Barbara Elkins before she passed away in 1999 and then later Bob and Dewey’s home.

There were three cars there when I arrived. I parked in my usual spot next to the well-house, kinda like coming home. When I went in, Laura, Pierre and Dewey were not around. There were four people sitting in the very back and it was obvious that they were her to watch. All those passing through tend to hold to the rear of the church. There were new faces up front tuning guitars, two women and children near the middle, there being no one there that I had seen before.

I sat my camera gear down and went up to introduce myself. The young man dressed in black introduced himself as Jason Stone, the new pastor of the congregation. His friend and fellow guitarist was Jason Hutchinson. Jason stone is 27 years old, his wife Jessica and son Phillip were also introduced to me. They were all very welcoming. Jason said he was familiar with my work from the website and when I asked he said that taking photos was not a problem. I reiterated what I had told Bob Elkins seven years ago, that none of my photos would be used to demean the church, congregation or faith. They also had three serpent boxes with a snake in each one. There was a copperhead, cottonmouth and a rattler.

When I went outside to the car, Laura, Pierre and Dewey pulled up. I had not seen Laura and Pierre for almost three years. They had spent a year in Chin teaching English and then had traveled in South Asia for three months before returning home. It was wonderful to see them again, they are great people, kind and compassionate.

A few more folks came in as did Don and Connie just as the service started. The service began as before with individual prayers and then a call for prayers for others. I offered a remembrance of Bob who had pastured the congregation for 55+ years. Several others wanted family and friends to be remembered.

Jason explained his approach to leading the church which was to have services open to everyone, He also spoke about the difference between church goes and Christians and that Christians embraced love and kindness. He stated that there were no circumstances in which anyone should be un-kind to another human. Throughout his sermons there was an element of compassion, something that is not always present in the fundamentalist movement in Christianity.

He spoke of his coming into the faith, an experience he had with his father. He had been terrified of snakes all of his life but one day he felt the spirit move within him and brought a serpent into his hands. He also spoke of his own abuses of drugs and other human challenges he had faced until he came to accept Jesus.

His oratory style is quite charismatic for such a young man. He has a very good singing voice and sang a number of songs that were melodic and soulful. He could be fiery in his own way but didn’t demean anyone or point them out as has happened with other preachers who have visited here. Jason Stone His son Phillip and wife Jessica.

Several others sang throughout the service. The music was rough at best, there not being enough musicians to really fill out the sound. I would image that in time we will see a wider range of instruments and song.

The thought crossed my mind as he preached that if Jason continues to exhibit the openness he did tonight, that he has the potential to rebuild this congregation. In the time that I have been coming there have been several young men who bordered on potential but none as accomplished so young as Jason.

Jason was the only one who handled during the service, picking up the rattler. As he did so he spoke about the nature of the serpent and about the five signs. I wish that I would have taped the sermons. There was much he said that was un-like what has been expressed there before. Each has their own way of expressing the same message. It will be interesting to see the evolvement of Jason as a pastor here and to be witness to a new birth of the spirit we have seen in past services.

It was also great to see my friend Dewey. He is so charming in his way and so rooted in his faith but of course as human as the rest of us. He tends to have small lapses of memory (he forgot my name at one point) and Laura and Pierre also remarked on this. Dewey always amazes me in his resilience. He has bounced back from some pretty bad diabetic issues and probably doesn’t eat as well as he should. One of the photographers that visited here years ago and left one of his photos with the inscription of Mark 16 Verses 17-18, lives in NY and had met Laura and Pierre recently. He sent Dewey a care package. People remember Dewey. In his day he was and possibly still is the most preeminent serpent handler known. A blessing for Dewey Dewey with Don and Connie.

After the service we visited with some of the folks before heading back to Don and Connie’s.

Laura and Pierre came up for about an hour and we all had the chance to catch up a little. Don gave them a lecture on getting a motel room when they could have stayed there as we all have in the past. They agreed to not do that again. Before I went to bed I started the process of cleaning up Don’s computer, removing un-needed programs, icons, and starting the de-fragmentation process to work during the night. In the morning we went on-line and purchased the Norton anti-virus program as he didn’t have any protection. Even in the depths of McDowell County, Don has DSL where as down my road in Roane County we still have dial-up! Laura and Pierre came back for breakfast Sunday morning. Connie, as usual is a wonderful host, always making sure that people are fed, have something to drink and are comfortable. Don is the same way, very accommodating. They gave me a key to the house (I lost the last one) so that if they are not there I can make myself at home.

 We said our goodbyes and hopefully will all meet again at the homecoming over Labor Day weekend. I will probably only make the Saturday service then as my son and his two boys will be visiting from Seattle. Kane has not had the chance to attend a service and is interested in accompanying me. I will leave you with a thought from Cantwell Smith: “It is an important step to recognize the faith of other people. The next step is to realize there are no other people”.