The Conception: Between Seed And Rain
Initially, there was great difficulty in getting the old videotape to feed into the massive player in the A/V bay of the local video production company we took it to. The company technician told us that the magnetic content of the old 2-inch wide tape was almost too potent for the modern player to read but he finally managed to compensate and draw video signal off of it. When we returned the tapes to their owner and told him how we almost couldn't use them, his wrinkled yet clean-shaven and farmer-tanned face wrinkled up in a gap toothed brown smile. "Y'see," he chuckled. "I told you that ye'd see the Spirit."
The old man was a friendly, elfin 87 year old man we'll call Herschel. We tracked him down at his farm in North Georgia and confirmed that he still had several of the old studio-produced videotapes made of the ministry of the famed Stephen Barnabas when he had visited Cleveland, Tennessee in the 1970's. Herschel had been on Barnabas' ministry board when the venerable old preacher suddenly died of a heart attack in 1977 at the height of his ministry's popularity. "Brother Stevie" had taken no steps to preserve his work after his passing, so aside from a few ad hoc attempts by his former disciples who hawked audio tapes made during his lifetime, nothing remained except scattered collections of his ministry records by religious archivists and followers who published his sermons and tracts.
Herschel managed to save the video shot during Barnabas' meetings held early in the fall of 1972 in Cleveland. He told us that the crusade staff had given them to Brother Stevie not long after visiting Cleveland but that Barnabas never used them. The video cans were found in his sparse little home in Berea, Kentucky which was auctioned away after his death. He graciously allowed us to borrow a couple of them, the ones he said "really showed ye the man and the Spirit flowin' together."
In the glare of the harsh TV lights, the old preacher was obviously very tired. But there was a spark in his steely gaze that glowed like a fiery ember, and each time he swept his gaze across the congregation there, many there recalled that it was like a torch being held out before them along a dark path. The pause in his delivery of that evening message seemed to last an eternity and weighed heavily upon all of the 11,000 present. He looked around upon the great throng, jammed into the Church of God of Prophecy's Assembly Tabernacle and again poured his soul out once again, and those nearest him in the circular rows surrounding the rostrum could see the faintest glimmers of tears beginning to streak his face. But all could hear the catch in his throat as the old preacher lifted up his voice once more, each syllable and word enunciated in the familiar Kentucky lilt everyone knew so well.
"Are you awake? Oh beloved, are you awake?"
Again, that eternal pause and a piercing stare. Then the preacher's pleading began again: "Are ye so certain that you aren't sleepwalking even now? Don't you see around you the signs of trouble ahead if we don't as a people, as a Body, as a great army of Christ arise from the collective coma we've all fallen into? Our churches are filled with sleeping masses at the foot of Mount Zion, unaware of the avalanches of rubble thundering down from the lesser mounts all around ‘em, the rubble of this fallen world's lies an' hypocrisy and sham and deceit!"
Stephen Barnabas' weary frame became alive again, as if a switch had been pulled, and beckoning gestures punctuated his speech as he walked around the rostrum to face them all. "We are dreaming in a terrible slumber when we say to ourselves that all is well with our souls, that we live the abundant Christian life!" His trademark finger waggle stabbed the air. " The only 'life' we ever show is when we roll around in our slumber fighting each other for better sheets or more space - to steal church members from one camp to another, to win our arguments and not His souls!"
The silence of the crowd gave way to murmurs and amens of painful agreement. Everyone recognized the thrust of Barnabas' indictment. From the groups of young preachers from Lee College to old black women in hats from the Lighthouse Missionary Baptist church, there was much nodding and sighing, much elbowing of one's neighbor. There would be no denying that what Barnabas was voicing what all knew but none had ever really spoken of. Not even the red faced pastors and deacons, twisting their Speidexes around in nervous conviction, could deny it. The ponderous yet plainly spoken oratory continued like a trumpet call.
"We sing in our churches 'How Firm A Foundation' and 'A Mighty Fortress Is Our God' and yet what passes for backbone among us is nothing more than Silly Putty that th’ world molds at will! We stand for nothing and fall for anything! And still, still, we deem ourselves alive? Abundantly alive? Changing and eer' being changed?" A few choked sobs and groans began to arise and many later would say that at that moment it was as if they'd been shaken by the napes of the necks of their very souls. A collective sigh could be heard on the video as we watched it and took notes
His eyes were shining with tears and the earnest agony of Barnabas' spirit as the trumpet became the thunder of a prophet: "Oh you foolish virgins! Foolish virgins, awake! Awake! We are in an age of crisis, an age of destiny, an age of decision. Don't let anyone convince you that the great moments of the Church were years ago! Brothers! Sisters! the greatest moment of Christian history - of Christian mission - is now! Fill your lamps! The Bridegroom is calling today still! You can fall with the night that is coming when no man can work or rise with the Son with healing in his wings! Choose ye this day! Arise! Arise!"
It went on like this for sometime and the congregation would erupt in ovations of applause and shouting, some of it in unknown tongues. Brother Stevie had brought the light and the people beheld it and were sore amazed.
Later that evening, after the meeting ended, most of the crowd went home but many sought a late dinner or cup of coffee and the few restaurants open were jampacked. One of them was the Sambo’s on 20th Street and many ended up there, coming out of the night slick with a cold autumn rain. But the spiritual temperature in the diner rose rapidly as Teresa McJunkin served that night as a 17 year old waitress there recalled:“It was a church crowd coming in and it was like none I’d ever seen before,” she remembered. “The tips were good and me and the other waitresses was respected. Everyone that walked in from that meeting talked non stop about what that old preacher had said and how he’d just read their mail and I mean every one of them was like that, everyone.”
She stopped for a long drag from her cigarette. “People were talking about the Bible, and some of them were real excited about how they needed to change and be real, and how the churches just seemed so .. so .. ” and the short, grey haired woman groped for words with a frown, “ well, so, dead and so lifeless. There was some powerful conviction on ‘em all.”
One middle aged couple in the corner booth, Teresa recalls, sat in with a circle of people and seemed particularly awe struck. “That man just had this far away look in his eyes and kept shaking his head. I remembered that. His wife, she just talked a blue streak.” It turned out that this man was a local pastor named Trent Alvin Swafford, accompanied by his wife Sabrina and members of a Bible study group they’d met at the meeting from a local Baptist church. And then Sabrina began to preach, on the spot, to everyone in the diner.
“I could hear her getting louder and louder as she talks to this group in the corner, and she then stands up, unzips her Bible and preaches right at them about the need for everyone to get right and be real because Jesus was coming. Then she turns and about knocked this other waitress Eula’s tray of food out of her hands, but doesn’t miss a beat and starts saying God’s looking for his real church. She said the real church has the victory and she cries out ‘won’t any of you seek to be part of the real church, walking in victory?’ ”
Despite food stains spattering the front of her pink striped blouse, Sabrina kept on, McJunkin said, until she finally stopped a few minutes later, “and she then apologizes to the manager, old Nate Deever, for disturbing the restaurant, but then she says ‘I’m not sorry I preached the Word, though. I had to deliver my soul.’ ” Afterwards, about half the restaurant crowd who came in from the meeting came by to shake her hand and tell them they appreciated what she said. It was there in that booth, McJunkin insists, that the Victory Christian Center began, “with preacher Swafford’s wife spattered in ketchup.”
Word spreads fast in a small Southern town anytime religious affection is involved, almost as fast as the usual level of gossip. And revivalism is a silent spring there that can in an instant erupt into a river of passionate faith. Congregants who attended the Barnabas meetings came away declaring that they’d been strengthened, encouraged and even provoked onward to a closer walk with God. But many others took with them a profound sense of discontent with the status quo of their spiritual lives and wanted more than just “playing church.” Brother Stevie somehow put into words what they’d all been feeling. His message was a call for real change, an exclamation point for their unspoken yearnings for renewal. They were genuinely weary of seeing hypocrisy, spiritual malaise and aimless socializing in the dry, lifeless church culture they were a part of. All wanted to arise, take a stand and make a difference. Most of them set in motion many spiritual innovations in their home churches, with results ranging from revitalized church meetings to outright indifference. It all depended upon where you went and who was involved.
So if brother Stevie’s crusade stop was the big splash in town, Sabrina Swafford’s heartfelt delivery was just one of the many ripples it sent across the region. Of the people in that Sambo’s on that rainy September night in 1972 who heard Sabrina’s oratory, several were impressed enough to actually seek out the Swaffords for spiritual counsel and that it even included a couple members of the Bible study group they sat with. The inquirers found an attentive ministerial couple they could easily talk to and who shared their common concerns about spiritual growth in light of the turmoil of the times. Trent and Teresa were self-effacing people who brought a refreshing Christian perspective on the problems and questions they were presented. Their humble manner, Bible-centered faith and heartfelt prayers they would offer were like a breath of fresh air to many. It wasn’t often you could find a preacher you could easily talk to and Trent was an approachable and affable man.
Just as Teresa had said, the seeds for the Victory Christian Center didn’t take long to sprout. Women came to study the Bible with Sabrina over coffee and brought along their pregnant, unmarried nieces, as well as their chain smoking sisters and lonely housewife friends seeking uplifting in their discouraging corners of the world. They weren’t disappointed by Sabrina’s intensely motherly manner which put them at ease and gave them sound, probing advice. Trent would socialize with their husbands and boyfriends who came by to pick them up and found themselves drawn by his engaging dry humor and his ability in moving from small talk to deeper things effortlessly and naturally. Later that fall, just before Halloween, the Swaffords threw open the doors of their doublewide trailer off Union Grove Road and started their own Bible studies on Thursday nights. They would begin with a few songs and prayers for each other as led by a retired lady evangelist named Polly Crumbley who brought along her guitar. Hymns and old time campmeeting songs like "I'll Fly Away," "I've Got My Foot On The Rock" and others would make the trailer walls ring. And then, over endless trays of potato chips and venison kibbles, Trent would open up his ragged old King James and lead them through a study of the Scriptures that engaged the heart as well as mind. At first there were about five couples who were rapidly joined by several others, some from the proverbial "wrong side of the track." Teresa, ever the engaging hostess, welcomed one and all, distributing coffee and Bibles for those who didn't have them with equal ease.
What the Swaffords taught in those days is preserved only in the scattered memories of those who were there. The notes kept by so many were discarded at their request as "new light" came in. There seemed to be a strong element of Bible prophecy as well as studies in the New Testament and how it was compared with the Old Testament to show how “the present dispensation” was foretold. Trent drew upon the themes brother Stevie had impressed upon him to explore, those being ones of restoration, holiness and a victorious Christian lifestyle “the way Jesus meant it to be for us,” as one man we’ll call Ernie recalled. He also remembered how they were reminded in each study of their responsibility ”to reach out of self and pour into others, to not give in to Babylon and to keep looking up.” There were a set of Scripture verses that Swafford was fond of quoting and he actively encouraged the members of the Bible study to make memorizing them a point of personal spiritual growth. The verses, taken from the New Testament, would be on the lips of every person we spoke to about the earliest days of the Victory Christian Center, quoted even as we asked of them: "But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," and "For whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world: and this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith."
The earnest passion about Trent Swaffords’ attentive pastoral bearing was undeniably appealing. “He had this really peaceful spirit and he was so encouraging,” said a man we'll call Ernie who first met Trent one day as he pulled up the long gravel road to take his girlfriend there. They found the tall, gangly preacher digging out a trench from his septic tank and singing hymns that echoed through the pine stands around their property. “Brother Swafford was a fine man who anyone could talk to, and you liked being around him. You left him thinking things and checking yourself.” Ernie and his girlfriend, who had been living together for some time, couldn’t quite decide to be married or to keep living in what all around them thought was a sinful situation. Before long, after Bible study and counsel, Ernie’s girlfriend moved back home with her mother to do “the right thing.” She would meet him thereafter only at the studies only and their relationship would remain platonic, but he recalled that it was a mutual decision that the Swaffords helped them to make so as to please God. “We loved each other, but we both wanted God’s best. We’d gotten too close too fast and we needed to honor Him. Sister Sabrina and brother Trent really ministered to us and helped us see the difference.”
There wasn't much known of the Swaffords themselves. What we were able to find out here was culled over several months of interviews with those who knew them. They were from northeastern Tennessee and were a curious mix of Baptist and Full Gospel persuasions somehow reconciled in the course of their public and ministerial conviction. They had two small, very well behaved children and stated they had just resigned the pastorate of a small church in Broyles Gap, a community not far from Jellico and had moved to the area in anticipation of the next step of a plan they felt that God had for them. Of this point, they were emphatic, believing that they were truly God sent to Bradley County, and the promotion Trent took with Bowater in Calhoun from a company branch office in Jellico itself certainly was a sign from on high of this direction. Trent had studied at Union Crusade College of the Bible in Bristol, Virginia as a younger man and graduated with a degree in divinity in formal preparation - and he was a voluminous reader. Sabrina had stood by her man since marrying him in 1963 and was seemingly a loyal helpmeet in ministry. She obviously fawned on him in public and sat raptly listening to him every time he taught, an attention he'd reciprocate whenever she was sharing her own observations and exhortations. The couple never exactly spelled out why they had left other then to say that they simply felt God’s will had been thwarted by ill-directed members of their former church and that "when the hand of man chokes the voice of the Spirit off," Sabrina would say, "it was our time to move."
Everyone understood that, of course. One had to obey God rather than man. But it hadn't been easy. Discouragement and the attacks of the enemy had plagued them for several months. They had wrestled with devils and lying tongues that tried to crush the life out of their spirits, the Swaffords would say of their immediate past, and they hadn’t quite known what to do until the night Steven Barnabas visited Cleveland. Prior to that, they had faithfully obeyed their ministry calling, and had launched out again in the local community, visiting churches and trying to see if God wanted them here or there and not meeting much acceptance. They'd been visiting hospitals and the jails for a time, waiting on Him to show them the next step, and it was outside on the steps of the Tabernacle, with the fine rain trickling down from the dark heavens, that according to Trent and overheard by others, “God began to speak to us and laid upon our unworthy hearts a vision." Though they said they hadn't seen it clearly, they knew it contained spreading God's Word and the Gospel of Christ that enabled all to live a victorious Christian life - hence their desire to start studying the Scriptures with anyone needing help to see what Christ had done for them and to also serve them as He would have them so do.
This was the motivation behind Trent's leading of the Bible study members' first spontaneous outreach that they decided to begin to the community. It came up in one study as Thanksgiving and then Christmas approached that year, as a tangible way for them to show that they were "reaching out of our selves" to those whom Jesus had commanded remembrance of. So two marvelous holiday dinners were planned and the women banded together to create two wonderful feasts that included room for poor families many of them knew, many of them colored. Complete with ham, turkey and venison taken off the thickly forested land of one Bible student from Polk County, it was a repast held at the VFW hall just south of where the Assembly Tabernacle stood. Ernie said he remembers that it was called the "victory feast" and that the colored families they'd reached out to were so appreciative of their invitation, so much so that they brought several other relations with them also.
Fed physically and welcomed warmly, Trent and Sabrina then took the opportunity to visit with the poverty-stricken people at their tables and learn a little about their own struggles and needs. He would end each brief chat with a family with an invitation to their Bible studies and hastened to let them know that the dinner came with no strings attached and that they just wanted to be a blessing to folk in hard times. In time, three new Negro families started to come, and in the warm spirit of Christian brotherhood, the Bible study group embraced and encouraged them also. It was a rare thing to see integrated Bible studies even in the "new South" that was emerging, but it pleased the Swaffords to no end to host them. "
During that fall, the Swaffords had continued to encourage the Bible students to continue worshipping at their own home churches. But increasingly, many of them began to quietly and then openly comment that they really didn't enjoy the stiff, formal and sterile atmosphere of their church worship services. The warm atmosphere of fellowship that permeated the Swafford's living room seemed to be seriously lacking any where else, or at least that is what Sabrina wistfully would remark over coffee with the women. "At least that's what we've seen out there, and take it from me, honey, I've been around church long enough to know!" One man said he felt so much more deeply blessed by Polly's guitar plunking and her bawling, yet heartfelt singing than the soaring, polished perfection of the Lee music majors who would on occasion sing at his church. More than one of them recalled that they felt that the group's time taken to intercede in prayer for personal needs was why they received answers, and that this was indeed one of the great blessings by fellowshipping with the group weekly as they searched the Scriptures together, as well as learning from one another that they weren't alone in seeing the failings of many churches they went to, which, Trent had taught, had sadly too long danced with Babylon.
So there were many ears that pricked up when Trent and Sabrina announced that they had no plans for New Years and would be staying home to celebrate it with private praise and prayer time and that anyone who wanted to come over was welcome. There wasn't much going on in Cleveland, anyway, and while several of the group were going to be out of town with family, many would also be in town. When New Year's Eve came, it didn't surprise the Swaffords when almost half their Bible study friends showed up. Over that New Year's Eve, hopeful discussion of a better New Year, desires for more spiritual growth, and by far, a lot of gratitude for Sabrina for her "obeying the Lord" at Sambo's was expressed. While the small group sang and praised God, their dreams of community seemingly starting to now come true, they agreed with Trent's quiet assertion that God was doing a new thing, and that in 1973 would see it start. It was an electric moment and it seemed like a move of God was afoot.
When the first of the year came and passed and the regular Bible study continued, it was again no surprise when a number of the group openly requested that Trent and Sabrina prayerfully consider holding special services for those who felt they couldn't go back to their old, dead churches on Sunday mornings any longer. "We knew what the Lord wanted," Trent would say later, "and we didn't stand in His way." To the group, the Bible study was a seed that the rains of revival, foreshadowed by the September rain shower that bathed the land when brother Stevie came, would surely bring forth growth.
After three days of consideration, along with fasting and prayer, the Swaffords gave the group their answer on Friday, January 5, 1973 during a called prayer meeting - since God had not raised far more worthy shepherds than he up to help tend His own sheep, he would accept the call to help point them to the Finish Line, if they would have him and if they believed in that overcoming and abundant Christian life was the birthright of the believer. It was hoped, said the Swaffords, that this would be a temporary arrangement, and that eventually, the churches would mature enough and exhibit the kind of growth that was taking place among them so they could some day return. "But this is the day of Babylonian captivity," Trent would say in the weeks to come in the new year, taking his cue from one of Brother Stevie's proverbs, "and the slaves don't come home much anymore. Only God can free the bound." Everyone said "Amen."
In the hope of the return of true Christian life to the sick Body of Christ, the Victory Christian Center was conceived.
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