Jake, his wife Erin, David Harrison, James and Jan Taylor and Judy Brandon were at the church preparing for the church’s Christmas dinner. Gifts for needy children would be wrapped and even Santa Claus would be arriving.
But things changed in a hurry, when ice and snow began freezing on the church driveway. As David explained, “Our church is on State Highway 140 West, perched on one of the highest points in Cherokee County and steep driveways, high elevation and ice do not mix at all.”
It was clear that everyone should head home immediately.
After putting the ham, sweet potato casserole and other vegetables in the refrigerator, they were on their way.
Quickly, the roads became impassable. David wrote, “Pastor Jake, his wife Erin and Judy Brandon turned right out of the parking lot, and I had turned left and headed farther north into the teeth of the freezing weather. My wife, Susan, had already spent more than an hour and a half in her car (normally a twenty minute drive) and was stopped very close to Pastor Jake and the others.
“I had traveled a mile and a half from church … I had been in constant contact with my wife, and after consulting with her and Pastor Jake the decision was made to … leave our vehicles and make the trek back to the church.”
He continued, “As I was walking, I kept finding people who were already stopped because of dangerous conditions, and I would tell them I was headed to the church at the top of the hill where there was food, restrooms, and heat and they were welcome to join us.”
About coming from the other direction, Erin wrote, “We stopped at cars near us and said … ‘we’re walking up to the church. There’s food there. Come on.’ … Almost every stranger we met thanked us, and prepared to leave their cars on the side of the road. We had to climb the icy hill to the church. A young mom, her son, and I held hands as we slipped up the hill.”
The food that was to have been the congregation’s Christmas dinner was still warm.
Erin continued, “Jake stayed upstairs, welcoming people inside … About 70 strangers ended up sharing a meal and getting to know one another.”
The steady stream of people coming into the church reminded David of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem looking for a place to stay.
David described the people who were there — “faculty, staff and students of nearby Reinhardt University, various and sundry families and/or individuals coming or going home or to work, and for our most pleasant surprise, 16 ballerinas from the Cherokee School of Ballet, their parents and siblings!”
A deputy sheriff stopped by the church. He make it clear that no one should leave until the expected thaw the next morning. So, everyone knew they would be sleeping at the church overnight.
The ballerinas had been on the way to Reinhardt University for a dress rehearsal of “The Nutcracker.” After everyone had eaten and got warm, they put on a performance in the downstairs fellowship hall.
The pastor set up a screen and projector in the sanctuary. First they watched the Charlie Brown Christmas movie. Then they saw what Jake and David described as the worst ever adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.”
With the children in the aisle and the adults on church pews, one by one, they began falling asleep.
“Everyone settled down for ‘a long winter’s nap,’” David recalls. “… there was a wonderful symphony of sleeping sounds as … people slept through the night and awoke to the smell of coffee and a cobbled together light breakfast … courtesy of Judy” Brandon.
The snow and ice began melting and soon the unexpected overnight guests of Heritage Baptist Fellowship were on their way.
During the night, Erin had written, “The church is warm and safe, and full of people tonight, I have so many thoughts I want to process about this night … a change of plans, welcoming strangers, offering a meal, sharing a table. But I’m pretty sure that what happened here tonight was truly the gospel. And my heart overflows with that thought.”
David ended his thoughts when he wrote, “We were glad the Lord had put us in their identical position and we were able to open our doors for the evening.”
Like Jake and David said, “It was like a Hallmark Christmas movie.”
Marguerite Cline is the former mayor of Waleska.