Five years ago on the 27th of April, Bethel Church of Christ on Hwy 72 in Athens was mowed down by an EF-5 tornado. Around 30 people were huddled together in the basement, cars were thrown all over the field, and thankfully, no one was hurt. Jimmy Clark, who has been Bethel’s preacher since 1984, (and is also a 5th generation preacher himself), said, with the voice of experience, “The next 20 months were pretty tough.” The debris field of the storm strike is known to have been at least 125 miles away, and one of the most precious things that Jimmy lost was a set of biblical commentaries written by Richard C.H. Lenski. They were given to him by his parents when he was studying at Freed-Hardeman, and are considered classics amongst biblical students. He had also inherited his daddy’s theological library, and it wasn’t the books, but it was the sentimental value of them that put the sting in the loss. “You lose some things, sure,” Jimmy said, “but you also gain a lot.”
By God’s grace, Bethel “gained a lot,” came back stronger, and their new building at 26772 Capshaw Road in Athens can comfortably seat 1,000. When they had their first service in the new, unfinished building, everybody brought their lawn chairs to sit on, and even made the concrete “sing.” During the design and construction phase of the “New Bethel,” one of their members, who actually was hospitalized as a result of the storm, lobbied for the new building to be designed so that it housed a certified storm shelter. His prayer was answered, funds came through to build what is essentially an underground bunker, and Bethel has had up to 800 people in there when there have been high TOR-cons and unstable weather patterns.
While the weather in April is often unpredictable, what has been consistent and stable among most Churches of Christ in the Southeast, is that April is the month for the yearly Friday night Sings and Gospel Meetings. This year’s Sing at Bethel will be on Friday, April at 15th, at 7 pm. The first time they had a Sing in their first year in the new building, more than 500 people came to participate. Jimmy says, “The Sings are a time for encouragement. They are a high point for people who enjoy that.” He says that “We have qualified song leaders from around the area, and they always lead us in the familiar songs, and teach us new songs, too. I have learned some new ones that have become some of my favorites.” The Sings throughout the South usually go until September, and at a place called Diana, TN, they have become so popular that the congregation had to build a new building that they call “the Shed” to accommodate visitors from all over the world. There, sometimes on Friday nights, they’ll sing until 2 am, til midnight on a Saturday, and then come back for Sunday service.
The Gospel Meeting starts this Sunday, April 3rd, and goes through Wednesday the 6th. The first meeting is at 9:30 am, and is a one hour Bible class. Worship starts at 10:30am. The evening service will start at 5pm, and afterward there will be an area wide youth event. Close to 250 youth are expected to attend, and the theme for the 2016 event is “Chosen.”
The Monday meetings will be held at 7 pm nightly, and the local Churches of Christ attempt to schedule their Gospel Meetings so that they can attend services at neighboring churches, participate in congregational singing, get straight preaching, good fellowship, and be back at their home churches for their usual scheduled events. “It’s kind of like a Camp Meeting,” Jimmy said.
This year’s guest speaker will be Robert Taylor, Jr., who has been preaching for over 50 years. Brother Taylor speaks all over the South. He is also a prolific writer, and both his preaching and his writing come highly recommended by Brother Clark. I asked him why he feels that this year’s Gospel Meeting at Bethel will be so special, and why we would want to attend. “He is a seasoned minister, and has a lot to offer,” he said. He also added that Brother Taylor is very thorough in his approach. “He has an extensive knowledge of the Bible, and that’s where his messages come from, just the Bible. He has also been in the ministry for over 50 years, and is able to speak with authority about what is going on around us. He makes things understandable, and very clear.” Jimmy also said that even though there is a good chance Brother Taylor is in his ‘80s, he’s still spry and can deliver the Gospel message with strength. Bethel hopes you will join them for both events, and for more information, you can go to www.bethelcoc.org
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner