First, a word of thanks to those who sent messages about the wildfires here in East Tennessee, asking if all was well here in the tmatt.net corner of the hills.
It helps to understand that the Tennessee Valley is about 40 miles wide here near Knoxville (click for map) and the worst fires have been in the East, in the Great Smoky Mountains. I live in Oak Ridge, which is up against the face of the Cumberland Mountains in the West. There is quite a bit of land, and often water, between the two ranges.
Still, everyone here knows people, or lots of people, who have been caught up in this story. I have been wondering -- given the culture in these parts -- when some kind of faith-centered story (other than people of faith jumping into the action at the level of volunteers, aid, etc.) would emerge from the flames.
If you've seen images from the Gatlinburg and Dollywood area fires, you know that hotels, lodges and rental cabins were hit hard. Can you imagine how many Bibles there were stashed in bedside drawers in all of those rooms, not to mention in the possession of the local residents?
That leads me to this interesting, and rather haunting, story that ran in The Knoxville News Sentinel and then was picked up by Religion News Service. To be blunt, the local headline doesn't do much to hint at what's really going on here: "Dollywood employee finds burned Bible page after wildfires."
The main difference between the News Sentinel and RNS versions of this story is that the team that worked on the original made the unconventional, but wise in my opinion, decision to put the Bible passage on that charred page right at the top of the text. Thus, the overture looks like this:
"O Lord to thee will I cry: for the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and the flame hath burned all the trees of the field. The beasts of the field cry also unto thee: for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness." -- Joel 1:19-20, King James Version
The day after wildfires tore through Gatlinburg, destroying more than 150 structures, killing at least three people and displacing thousands, Isaac McCord was doing his part to help out, picking up debris from the Dollywood park grounds.
Gripping his rake, he revisited a spot in Craftsman Valley he had skimmed over after his co-worker, Misty Carver, quipped, "Is that how you clean your room?" Provoked, he said he had started "really getting in the nooks and crannies" under a park bench when he caught a glimpse of a piece of paper lying in a puddle of water -- soggy, seared and torn in two.
McCord, a University of Tennessee alumnus who now works as a human resources training coordinator at Dollywood, said he had no idea what the paper would read, but considering the circumstances, he was curious enough to pick it up.
Without that Bible passage right up top, it was hard to know why this particular Bible page was so symbolic, thus making the scene rather dramatic.
In the RNS story online, the actual torn Bible page -- in an image from Facebook -- was inserted after the second paragraph, but I found it rather hard, at first, to make out the key passage.
Either way, it was strong content and captured how people around here struggle to find meaning in these kinds of events. In other words, this was a very heartland, Bible Belt, red-zip-code kind of story and it had to be played that way.
This long passage contains the heart of the story:
The page appears to be from the first chapter of Joel from the King James version of the Bible.
"We were like this is unreal, this is unbelievable," McCord said. "When we had both fully read it, we looked at each other -- and I will never forget this moment -- we both burst into tears. I was ghost white, and we just prayed. There was nothing else to do.
"Still to this moment, almost four hours after the fact, I don't have words for it."
McCord posted a photo of the charred Bible page on Facebook, and four hours later, he was contacted by Dollywood public relations workers who told him the post had been shared more than 50,000 times. McCord had no idea, he said: His Facebook showed less than 1,000 shares.
McCord wasn't a highly religious man prior to his discovery -- he didn't go to church every Sunday or read the Bible often -- but he said he has a relationship with God that shapes his morals and how he treats other people. He was impacted by the discovery because he said he knows several co-workers who lost their homes in the chaotic blaze. He intends to frame the Bible page, and now, he said he may re-examine the role religion plays in his life.
There's one more interesting angle to this story.
Apparently, in the age of fake news and viral social media, there was some concern that this story may have been planted or part of a publicity stunt. Thus, the story quotes multiple people about the discover of the page.
Like I said at the top of this post, anyone who knows this region has little or no trouble imagining that there were lots of burned Bibles in the ruins. The key to the story is that one particular page surviving, then floating away on the wind and ending up in a place where it was spotted.
Quite frankly, we are also talking about a rather obscure corner of the biblical canon. This was not a familiar verse that would have popped into the mind of the average person caught up in this kind of drama.
Nevertheless, the story ends like this:
McCord said he knows people may doubt the truthfulness of his story. He emphasized he is not an official spokesman for Dollywood, and he does not speak on behalf of the park or its employees. He just wanted to share the story to give people hope.
"I wanted to share this message because it brought me to tears. I wanted to share this message because I think that faith and hope is very powerful in a situation like this. There are hundreds of people that are displaced and that have lost their homes. Most of these people will cling to faith. By no means was I trying to get social recognition. ... I would say to anyone who wants to call it fake, call me. Please call me. It is something that I'll remember for the rest of my life."
That's a piece of the news here in the hills of Tennessee. If anyone else sees other interesting faith-based stories from this drama, good or bad, please let me know.