The Hollow Church - chuckrayconner

Jolo – The Hollow Church 12/16/2006

It is another of our recent warm days, almost 60 degrees in mid-December with sunny skies. There seem to be no weather norms over the past five years or so but plenty of controversy as to why so we uneasily indulge ourselves.

It has been over two months since I have been back to Jolo. In the meantime there have been many phone calls to the hospital, Don and Connie, and to Rev. Elkins home keeping abreast of Bob’s medical condition. If you read “Spiritual Transitions” you will understand the seriousness of his illness. He is home after an extended stay in the hospital, enormous medical expenses, and with his wife Aileen having been told “there is nothing else we can do, enjoy his remaining time”.

I leave Speed at 8 am and encounter little traffic until the Corridor G mountain top removal area. This is an area south of Charleston where they continue to scrape off the mountains to build more and more consumer driven craziness. There are now four major shopping areas and at peak times even the new highway expansion completed last year is pressed to its limit. I am always amazed as the level of buying we do. There seems to be little regard for where or how things were made and the cost to human lives in terms of wages, working conditions, access to health care, child care, and other social justice issues. Kind of an irony given “the reason for the season”.

Once you leave this area the traffic drops off almost immediately by 75%. Rt. 119 South is a four lane corridor that has opened up the southern coalfields for increased access to other areas of the state and connection to major highways. There are a number of “corridors” in West Virginia and most have come with controversy regarding environmental damage, loss of individual’s homes, and always with promises of economic opportunity which is very arguable.

It is a wonderful day to drive. At this time of year, with the trees bare, everything is revealed in the mountains. It’s like a mask has been removed and the scars revealed. There is much beauty remaining but is sometimes overshadowed by what humans leave behind in their wake. The two photos below illustrate these points. Mountainside Farm Buildings The Hidden Side of Consumerism

Once you leave Rt. 119 at Logan, about an hour south of Charleston, you are into the heart of the coal fields. The roads literally snake through the crevices at the base of the steep mountains until those routes are exhausted and you have to climb and descend the winding roads scraped out from the side of the mountains. It is this lack of access that has kept the world at bay for the most part. The only major employers have traditionally been timber and coal and then the education and health care systems that come with the building of communities. You can see the resilience in the way people live. The modern is mixed next door to the traditional Jenny Lind homes.

One of the biggest economic developments to bring a renewed sense of hope to the area is the Hatfield-McCoy Trail system. This has been a cooperative effort between a variety of landowners, the state and others to open up a large area to four wheelers. This has brought an influx of out of state people that literally come by the thousands to ride the old logging and mining roads in these beautiful hills. You can see the new businesses that have opened up in four wheeler rentals, small motels and new restaurants. The interest in 4-wheeling has a downside and that is in accidents. WV recently had their 53rd fatality. Unfortunately most of these have come because the riders are not following safety codes such as wearing helmets, riding two up on a one seater, being under the influence, and riding at excessive speeds. The folks operating the Hatfield-McCoy have had only one fatality in their few years of operation because they require riders to adhere to a safety code and they have rangers patrolling the trails.

There are always oddities along the way and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. One that has always been fascinating is a home that that is made of small round stones and at one time was surrounded by rock walls. It is easy to imagine that it was a quite a home in its time. It is now in very bad shape but still has someone living in it. I have always wanted to meet that person but have hesitated from further intrusion.

When you get to Iaeger (pronounced Yeager), you get further off the main road by taking Rt. 80 which leads to Rt. 83 at Bradshaw and then on to Jolo. The roads seem to increase in their curvature as you get deeper into the southern WV Mountains. Just before Bradshaw they are building a new middle school and the road was closed and a detour was posted. In the six years I have been coming down I had never had to take an alternate route and so was excited to see new territory. I headed up the mountain and I had no idea where it would lead. Again we are even further off of a main road and are able to see where and how people live even deeper in the mountains. There was of course a mixture of modest modern homes, doublewides, trailers and Jenny Lind houses, each with their own personal blend of mountain lifestyle. Some are collectors in a hap-hazard style others very neat and orderly. Most all have gardens, trucks, four-wheelers, and dogs.

As I got to the top of the ridge I realized that Shannon and I had been here before. In one of the first years we were coming down, one of our acquaintances, Kenneth Hicks, had brought us up here to meet a young man whose family owned a huge apple orchard. During that trip we also visited a cock farm and fighting rink, moon shiner and a shooting range with gambling parlor. Anyway the view at the top was nice, the ridges filled with apple orchards terraced into the hillside. They appeared to be old tress and not very well cared for at this point so I’m not even sure it was an active orchard.

Interestingly enough the detour brought me out on the Virginia line, just above Jolo. We had circled above, behind, and south of where we would normally have come in. As long as I was at this point I was only two miles from the church so I went by so see if Dewey was there.

I knocked on the door and it took a few minutes for Dewey to answer. He looked pretty fair in health. His living situation is not good, there is not running water or bathing facilities and the toilets in the church were not usable, but he seems to survive somehow. He did tell me that friends and relatives do stop by at times and bring him food (Lydia, his sister) or take him to their place for a meal or shower (Melissa, his niece). He walks everywhere else, his ability to drive no longer with him.

There has not been a service since Dewey and I managed to pull it together with a few others at Homecoming over Labor Day. I asked to go in the church and was shocked when I entered. It was cold, damp, and hollow.

The piano, organ and guitars were all gone, only the drum set remained and it was in pieces. Almost all the photos that had been on the walls were gone. Those remaining were the photos I mounted on the front wall in the form of a cross, a drawing that Shannon had done of Ray and the remaining photo had been a gift of another photographer in 1991. It was of Dewy, Ray McAllister and Jeff Hagerman with the verses of Mark 16 -18 imposed over the image in red. The frame was bent from the weight and there were dead bugs between the glass and photo. I asked Dewey if I could take this and clean and re-frame it and he agreed.

Dewey stated that he would like to begin services again on New Years Eve. It seems such a sad dream. Not impossible, but it was Bob Elkins that drew people to the church with his charisma, manner of preaching, and they way he lived his life. As I stood in the church at this time, feeling the dampness, the cold, and seeing how people had literally stripped it of its soul, the reality of the end of the congregation was the most evident ever.

I asked Dewey if he wanted to visit Bob with me and he was happy to do that. We drove the few miles to Aileen and Bob’s, knocked a few times and Aileen answered. She looked good but weary. I’m sure she was relieved to be at home after living at the hospital with Bob. She had left his side very few times and for only a few hours during that time. The house was decorated for Christmas with a tree that rotated; its lights were perfectly strung, and were flashing multiple colors.

Bob was in his bedroom. They had exchanged his king-size bed for hospital bed so that he would be more comfortable and he could be cared for with much more ease. I was surprised at how good he looked. His skin tone was much better and his ability to talk without gasping for air a little improved. He was skin and bones other than his face, having lost a lot of weight. He is on constant oxygen and of coursed multiple medications for a variety of complications. He is fragile to say the least. But Bob being Bob, he was up for company and had his usual sense of humor which is wonderful.

We chatted for a short while and then I asked Bob and Dewey if they would be willing to clarify some aspects of the faith and its practices from their perspective. They agreed. Over the years I have read much on the questions I was to ask but still felt that from their experiences it was needed to hear it as it was lived by them. The interview was taped so there would be accuracy in transposing both questions and answers but some was still difficult to translate and I have indicated those areas.

Chuck - When people speak in tongues, who is it that hears and interprets the message?

Bob – “Well, it’s the one God gives it to. Not everybody has got the gift of interpretation. Theys a gift of interpretation and then there’s a tongue where you - they speak unto God and not unto man… see. Interpretation can be interpreted by somebody or answer somebody up there and their at the pulpit…when they are speaking an unknown tongue your speaking unto God and not unto man”.

Chuck - So there can be two different tongues?

Bob –“Theys two different tongues. You know its one spirit, there’s two different manifestations”.

Chuck - Is there a way to be taught to speak in tongues or is it just something that comes through the spirit.

Bob – “It comes through the spirit. They got that a goin’ or did have in Richland’s; learnin’ people how to speak in tongues but that ain’t God a speaking that’s them”.

Chuck - That’s one of my questions…I’ve heard some ministers come to the church….and speak in tongues but it seems to be…they seem to be saying the same repetitive phrase over and over. So it doesn’t seem to be…now this is just my perspective, it doesn’t seem to be natural. It seems to be practiced. Is that what we’re talking about is that…

Bob – “The Bible says that when a Pentecostal receives the Holy Ghost…says they spoke in tongues as the spirit gave utterance…see that’s the spirit in there and…and if ain’t the spirit speaking it ain’t no good. It’s the whole way you gotta (an unintelligible word here) religion but it ain’t.

Chuck - Has the spirit moved you to speak in tongues?

Bob – Oh yea…he gives me more to interpretate than speak in tongues.

Chuck - Is there a difference in feeling when the spirit moves in that way than in other ways?

Bob – No...Ahh…see God speaks to the heart and you know just what to say.

Chuck - Another question I have is of Baptism by water. Does it make a difference whether it is flowing water or still water?

Bob – Well…I’d rather be flowin’ water cause the Bible speaks of washing away of sin…if I was still water it wadn’t goin nowhere.

Chuck - So the baptisms you have done have been in the creek or the river so it is flowing?

Bob – Right…

Chuck - Do you or have you anointed prayer cloths to send home to people who are sick?

Bob – Sure have…they work to.

Chuck - So…that’s a blessing that comes from God through you?

Bob – Yea…or maybe someone else you know.

Chuck - So someone else could ask for that cloth to be anointed?

Bob – Yea…just anybody you know… (Starts coughing and loses breath so we pause).

Chuck - In the Church of the Lord Jesus… that when you open and close the service… most people are very vocal in their prayers. Is that a tradition, is just typical of the church, or the Pentecostal faith, or the Signs - Following people?

Bob – Sign Following people. Everything that they do, ya know, they hold it in the name of the Lord Jesus. That’s what the Bible said do, that everything that you do, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Chuck - Ok, so that’s the reason that its vocal is so that everyone can hear that?

Bob – Yea...we want people to know what we believe….they know other salvation given through and by him…you know….

Chuck - Are all signs following churches…are… are they very musical?

Bob – Yea, most of em’ have quite a bit of music.

I can tell it is time to give Bob a rest. He is in his element when speaking of his faith and his effort is very much appreciated. At this time I turn to Dewey to get his perspective on some of the questions.

Chuck – Dewey, have you spoken in tongues (he replies with a yes) and does it come to you in any other way…than the spirit would come to you to do any of the other signs, I mean is there a different feeling?

Dewey – There’s one spirit. It all works just like a (can’t make out several words) and all things we should do them with the spirit...I agree with everything Bob said there (meaning the answers Bob provided to my questions) there’s just one Lord, one faith, one baptism…one spirit. And that one spirit is….a baptism is sort of, you know a different thing. The spirit of the Lord is water…one thing…and you cain’t change it. (Unfortunately I interjected here…“it just simply is” and Dewey repeated that back to me) ….and we like the one Lord, one faith and one baptism…we cain’t change the faith…cain’t change the word in no way shape or fashion. And he also said be a doer of the word…… saving your own self…were…were just…like pretending like were believing the word of God and talking above the word in secrecy…serious about the whooole thing. Cause God is a serious thing…he’s your maker, he’s our judge, he’s everything… he’s a jealous God to start with so that tells ya got some kind of controversy there. It’s like being involved with two different people…would it, there’s some controversy between us. There’s differences…. Chuck – You mean a difference in the way you express your faith or the way that the spirit comes through you…is that what you’re talking about? Dewey – I believe the way the spirit comes through, it…it works through us….it’s the same spirit…it just works a little different…(he goes on to begin to describe the way the spirit comes into him but some is not understandable)…

Chuck – So when you feel it, you feel it in your gut first?

Dewey – That’s the first place I feel it…whenever it’s really, really coming through…ats right around in here (rubbing in his stomach area) and it gets along up in here (indicating his chest area) and that’s where it stays….my hands used to…I’ve heard people say where it starts in their hands…I won’t speak to that cause I don’t know.

Chuck – Cause its different for every individual?

Dewey – Yea…Barb she was a…she was always a spiritual person…she would….she would more so live with the spirit in most things in anything of anybody I know of really… she really depended on God for a healing purpose…of course she was…well…if I got sick or Bob got sick, or somebody in the family… (Dewey whispers these next few words)….”she would go to the doctor” but she would also pray for ya to. (Dewey whispers a few more things about Barb and doctors but it is difficult to really make out). So, that’s how we were raised but I’ve not always done that. She didn’t raise us to do it, she raised us to know that she…it’s the way she walked. It’s what she done. And Bob he was a little bit difference in ‘at.

Chuck – So you’re saying that the way she raised you she allowed you to kind of find your own path within the faith?

Dewey – Yea….you…you…you need to…that’s what you need to get your own…feelings and everything…

Bob interjects – The Bible says you raise them in the way you have ‘em to go….the old way was the thoughtfulness…so you raise them in the faith.

Chuck – Bob, when the spirit moves on you, where do you feel it first or how does it express……

Bob – It moves on the inside.

Chuck – Do you feel it anywhere in your body first? Bob – At times you can feel it…well…sometime when you’re handling serpents you feel it in your hands…ya know…different places. Different things that you do is a different manifestation but it’s all the same spirit that you experience.

Chuck – I want to move back to baptism. Is there…is there one particular method that you would use in baptism? I’ve seen where people are immersed three separate times, does that make a difference?

Bob – Now, well in order to be baptized and that’s in the name of the Lord Jesus…ya know we wish to the words “what are you”…we wish to the word “I baptize this my brother or sister, ya know which ever it is and “in the name of the Lord Jesus”.

Chuck – So one immersion is as good as three?

Bob – That’s right… what do ya need with three, it only takes one. (this is a classic Bob Elkins line)

Chuck – As you think back over your fifty-some years as the pastor of the church, what do you see as…as probably one of the highlights in your memories about being the pastor if that church?

Bob – Well, we are able to get over to the people….the Word is the main thing. You rejoice inside when you know that you brought the Word and the people received it. That makes you rejoice see.

Chuck - Since, since your illness and…and you, you haven’t been able to um, to…to lead the church, how do you come to terms with that…I mean this is your life?

Bob – I…I just pray. Everyday I pray and thank the Lord for what he’s done for me, for the blessings he give me…watchin’ over me…that’s my daily prayer. It’s all I can do I cain’t……if he’d move on me to shout I’d shout…but you know he don’t….but now he brought me a long way. I can kind of pull up in the bed where’s for awhile I couldn’t do that. I stayed 67 days in the hospital. The hospital bill was… ahh…$87,000…an that was all of it….you know that Dewey? (Dewey responds with yea and then the three of us have some playful banter about who will pay the bill).

Chuck – So…so Dewey, in…in all the time that you’ve been involved in…in the faith and in the church, what are some of the highlights in your life in being associated with the church?

Dewey – There is a pause and then he says… I don’t understand you really.

Chuck – If you had one memory of…that kind of wraps up your faith…umm…what would that be, I mean what was one of the strongest memories of being in the church?

Dewey – Getting the Holy Ghost…getting the spirit…that would be my first priority, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t exchange that for nothing…an I’m talking about with speaking in tongues…an everything on down the line that falls with it….and then the spirit the Lord give me inside to believe.

Chuck - And when you have spoken in tongues are you aware of it?

Dewey – Yea, if I wadn’t aware of it I wouldn’t be….in what aspect do you mean about being aware?

Chuck – Well…do you know that you’re speaking in tongues at the time?

Dewey – Yea.

Chuck – Do you interpret that or is it simply something that comes through you and maybe somebody else interprets that?

Dewey – Sometimes come through you with no one…you know what’s happening, what’s being said…and then they are interpreters to it…Bob…Bob used to be good at it…or he used to have a good spirit of interpretation…and Barb had it. Bob – Sometimes you get a message for yourself.

Chuck – In the speaking of tongues?

Bob – When you’re speaking in tongues, ya get for yourself and it ain’t to be told sometimes.

I thanked them both for their time, this was important to me. After a little more talk with Bob and Aileen we said our goodbyes. As usual Bob told me he loved me and appreciated the visit. It is a special moment for me when he says that, I see and feel his spiritual nature, with him seeing me beyond the “sinner” and as a friend. Aileen gets a special hug. She has much to bear not only with Bob’s care but with all things family.

Dewey and I are next off on a very short drive to see the Evans family. Melissa is his niece and lives with her husband Richard and sons Nathan and Tyler. Melissa had loaned me two of her personal photo albums that contained documentation of the church, congregation, serpent bites, etc. I had photocopied these for historical purposes and as a potential addition to an exhibit. Not wanting to be invasive I didn’t bring in my camera although in the past it was not an issue as I always bring them photos.

Melissa is in her pajamas as she had not been feeling well. Richard is cooking a pot of brown beans for supper and the boys are doing their own thing but everyone stops to hang out with us. Nathan and I get into a discussion of his desire to be a coal miner. I try to give him some insight and reality check and enlist Richard (disabled from the coal mines) into the conversation. Melissa and Richard would rather Nathan do something else, but Nathan sees what he considers big money and a family tradition. He is a good kid and we have a time exchanging little barbs about Don Blankenship, Massey Coal, and he chides me about Buddha.

We are invited to stay for dinner and of course cannot refuse. We sit down to white bread and brown beans while Tyler scrambles himself eggs as he doesn’t like brown beans. Nathan actually does eat the beans with us although he had stated before he didn’t like them either.

I return the albums to Melissa and ask if she has others that I can borrow. She gives this some thought which is understandable, these are irreplaceable photos and most of the negatives have gone by the way. She brings out three more albums that we look at and she agrees to let me borrow them and I make a pledge to guard them dearly.

Richard has only two serpents at this time and we talk about getting together in the spring to serpent hunt again. This is a great time to get deep into the McDowell Mountains and engage in a very exciting but risky activity.

It is moving toward 6 pm and I still have to drive to Roderfield so we say our goodbyes and thanks for dinner. Richard tells me of another way towards Welch so I don’t have to back-track over the mountain detour again. I take Dewey back to the church, we talk awhile and in the conversation he asks “where’s your wife”. The subject of Shannon comes up in each of my visits but I have long since quit providing responses. I just don’t know what to say and cannot speak for her.

The way to Roderfield that Richard suggests is going back through Bradshaw and over the mountains towards Welch. There is still a little sunlight left so you can see the details of people lives around their homes. I pass through the small towns of Bartley, Yukon, Cavetta, Big Creek and Coalwood. Against the backdrop of a leaf-less forest, abandoned buildings, and junk cars it does seem bleak. What are not so evident are the resilience, creativity, determination, pride, and friendliness of the folks living in these mountains. The only way to know this is to slow down and visit on their terms and time frame.

The road ends between Welch and Roderfield as I turn left towards Don and Connie’s. About mid-way there I stop to photograph a pink/blue sky against the black ridgelines. The color combination reminds me of two things from my childhood, Good n Plenty’s (candy) and a 1956 Buick that my father had that was pink and gray. It’s interesting how the senses are so connected to memory. Anyway, as I was out of the car photographing Don’s black pickup goes by with the horn blowin’. A nice little welcome before arriving at their home.

I get there just behind them and there is another car waiting for them also. This is Terri, Connie’s daughter and her son, Shane. Don and Connie have been keeping Shane’s two children for the past couple of months so they won’t have to go to foster care. It seems Shane has made a few bad decisions that placed him on probation and w/o custody of the children. This is a big change in Don and Connie’s life, taking on mere babies. Aliyah is three years old and her brother Colton is two. Aliyha is initially shy but becomes very friendly and talkative while Colton is still trying to figure out language.

Don, Connie and the kids have been to the store are there is much food to carry in and store away. I have met Terry and Shane before but only once and it’s been awhile. Throughout my time there Shane is quiet and doesn’t say much to anyone. Terri is easier to engage in conversation and very likeable.

Aliyah has gotten a new toy, a horse with a long mane and tail that comes with hair-ties, berets and jewels that can be used in decorating both. She asks me to open up the package for her so we sit on the floor and while I’m doing this she just talks away. Once the toy is out I have to decorate the mane and tail at her insistence. Her language skills for her age are pretty impressive. It wasn’t long before we had a great relationship going. At one point she looked up at me and said “you’re cool”. I was hooked and in love and you can see why………

She is such a sweetheart and I have a suspicion she knows this! Her brother Colton is in his own little world and played with his toys, staying to himself mostly.

Don and Connie have taken me in for the past six years and been incredible friends. I have brought Connie flowers each visit and brought Don photos and writings on the church. They have very big hearts and do a lot for many folks in the area. They have been close supporters of Bob Elkins over the years.

Connie as usual fixes food for everyone and there is always more than can be eaten. It is fun to be there with the kids, they do add something to the atmosphere but I can see where it is very tiring when you have been out of that scene for many years. Terri as the grandma is very helpful to both the kids and Shane, he is very lucky. Terri works at a post office in Virginia, Shane is soon to be driving a coal truck.

We finally all reach our limit of sleep deprivation but we do stay up to catch the Power Ball numbers. I win $7, not quite the jackpot. Aliyah wants to sleep with me on the couch in the front room but both Connie and I explain that there isn’t room. She pouts and is so cute in her mannerisms and expressions!

I get up in the morning and surprisingly Don and Connie are up. I generally am up well before them but I think the kids may have something to do with this as I see Aliyha in their bed. I drink a little coffee and then drive down the hollow to get the Sunday papers for Don. Everyone else is asleep but Terri does get up with us. Over the course of an hour Connie fixes biscuits and gravy (no meat to suit my vegetarian choice), eggs, bacon, sliced tomatoes, and a variety of jams and jellies. Three of us go through two pots of coffee bringing the morning into hyper focus.

Terri leaves to run home to Bradshaw to take care of home business. I show Don the albums that Melissa has loaned me and what I’m planning to do with them. He says he wants a copy also but would like them in color. He has a friend at a Pharmacy that may do them at a good cost. I explain that none of the photos can be shared with others, they are very personal. He states that he will stay with the albums while they are being copied and assures me of their safety and confidentiality. I trust Don so agree to this as color copies would be the optimum to have.

The kids and Shane are still sleeping when I say my goodbyes and thank you to Don and Connie for their hospitality. It has been a wonderful visit with everyone and one of seeing great changes in so many of their lives.

On the drive back I stop at the road-side yard sales going on, one of my minor passions. At one stop I do find a wonderful John Denver album for $1, in perfect condition. I have a love for vinyl and the clarity of its sound.

Generally much of the drive back home is one of reflection. Looking back at this particular journey with the church and not knowing when or how it may end. That is the mystery of our lives. It is what intrigues us as we wake each day and question with wonder all that surrounds us. We absorb all that is within our senses, imagine what is beyond that and make up the rest.