APPALACHIAN DAYS WRITING CONTEST
The church was impressive. Watch Tower Ministries was housed in what must have been one of the most impressive buildings in Nike, Ohio during the 1970s. Two decades earlier, Nike’s tire factories were a place of economic refuge for thousands of Appalachian residents who fled the coal fields looking for work. They received something less than the warm welcome they had anticipated. Often belittled as “hillbillies” or “rednecks,” they crowded into neighborhoods on the east side of the city as earlier groups departed for the suburbs. Often homesick and sometimes a bit alienated, they searched for the familiar. Country music bars and weekend journeys back home help ease the transition for some, but others needed more. A spiritual longing remained, and the Reverend Mr. Alvin D. Prophecy rose up to fill the void.
Born on a hard-scrapple farm in Beriah County, Kentucky, Prophecy’s parents had eked out a living as best they could tilling the earth, harvesting the timber in the forest, and running a small country store. He never much liked his birth name of Manfred Lockney.
What kind of name is Manfred for a boy anyway? He always told his friends to call him Manny. Even though his folks never had much, the Lockney family had it better than most along Badseed Creek and Manny knew it. Manny also knew he was made for more important things than scrapping along running a country store or trying to go under the earth to dig out black gold with a continuous miner. He did well at sports in high school and managed to keep a respectable grade point average in the process. He had only two reliable windows to the outside world – talking with family who had returned from the
North to visit and listening to the radio.
The radio was magical. It literally brought the sounds of the world to you. He heard music in church. The sounds of the congregation singing the standard Baptist hymns had always given him comfort and security. Family gatherings were also enlivened by amateur musicians playing and singing what outsiders called Bluegrass music. But on the radio, Manny could hear new “country” tunes recorded in Nashville and the pounding rhythms of rock-and-roll on WZZK in Cincinnati. He liked rock-and-roll, especially after stealing and drinking a few beers from the cooler that his father kept in the storeroom in the back.
He wasn’t supposed to know about the cooler, but he did. When he had a little alcohol and turned up Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnny Cash on the radio, it was like his brain had been set on fire. It made him want to dance. It made him want to fight. It made him want to do immoral things with his sweetheart. Truth be known, it made him want to do all of those things at the same time and he didn’t know why.
But he knew those feelings were wrong.
He also liked listening to the radio preachers. They weren’t like his pastor. They had fire in their bellies and the spirit moved them to eloquence. Manny could picture them in his mind’s eye as they moved about exhorting their congregations. God’s message was not one to be delivered in a monotone by good men who lacked inspiration. It was a message that needed to reach a man’s soul by grabbing his imagination and focusing his attention on salvation and the possibility of damnation. So Manny turned away from the temptations of beer and rock-and-roll, and he turned his attention to the future, his future and that of all mankind. He would be a preacher, a radio preacher, who would send out the word over these magical waves to the lonely and the desperate and anyone else who would listen. But he knew that he could never be a famous radio preacher if he continued to live along Badseed Creek, so after graduating high school, he followed his Uncle Jake to Nike and took a job at National Tire.
Manny read his Bible every night and took classes at the Holiness Bible College on Saturdays in order to prepare himself for the ministry, but his Uncle Sam had other plans for him. An induction notice, a physical examination, and some basic training prepared him to be a soldier, slogging through the rice paddies and swamps of Vietnam. As a boy, he had been washed in the blood of the Lamb. As a young man, he would experience a different type of baptism – one much more frightening and transformative. If he survived – if he survived the mined footpaths and bullets of the Viet Cong, if he survived the Saigon prostitutes and the foul water – he would take up his cross and fulfill his destiny.
He returned from his tour of duty a man with the wisdom of the eternal, a man people could believe in, a man who could not be denied. Watch Tower Church started in a small storefront in a depressed neighborhood. Manny ministered to the most humble of God’s people. After a year in the vineyard, he received his first radio contract from a small A.M. country-music station in Nike. They would broadcast his Sunday morning service, but the station manager suggested a more appealing name for the young pastor. “You’re an exciting preacher, Manny, but a name like Manfred Lockney isn’t going to attract many followers. They’ve got to turn on to our station before you can reach them.” Several possible names were discussed, but they finally settled on Alvin Divine Prophecy. It proved to be a winner and what started as a Sunday morning broadcast soon became a syndicated two-hour-long program of worship and prayer heard in 31 states and five foreign nations. I had to see and listen to this divine prophet for myself.
The interior of the church was very modern and unconventional for the day. The seats were arranged in layers of semicircles, with the “stage” at the lowest level of the church.
On the stage was a simple glass podium and above it, suspended from the ceiling, was an enormous cross. A radio microphone was attached to the front on the podium. The assembled congregation numbered about a thousand people, each wearing the best clothing a J.C. Penny’s sale had to offer. When the Reverend Prophecy entered from behind a curtain at the rear of the stage, the audience fell silent.
“Let us be in prayer,” intoned the husky voice of the minister. “Let us not ask God to give us what we want but help to guide us in doing His will.”
A few hearty “amens” were spontaneously vocalized by the faithful.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ, as I look upon you, I don’t see a group of sinners and saints gathered together because we are all sinners who through the grace of God have the potential to become saints.” Several people nodded their heads in agreement. “I don’t see a gulf, a divide between the richest of us and the poorest because that divide does not exist in heaven. I don’t see men who are black or white because God is color blind and He gave His only son to save us all!”
“Then what do I see?” Pointing to his left he shouted, “Over there, I see a woman grieving for the loss of her only child and she wants to know why he was taken from her.” Pointing to his right he whispered, “And over there is a man who was just laid off from his job and he has a wife and three children to feed.” Gesturing toward the center of the church, he calmly reported, “And there sits a brave soul, quietly battling cancer, death staring her in the face and wondering if she is going to make it through this ordeal.”
“I don’t know why bad things happen to good people or why seemingly bad people have good fortune here on earth. No man was meant to have such knowledge. And I am just a man, as wretched as the poorest beggar in the streets. But I can tell you this: God has a plan for each and every one of us. You might feel abandoned, but you are not abandoned.
You may feel as if you are being crushed by the weight of the world, but He will give you strength. You may feel as if you do not have a friend left in this world, but I can assure you that you do have one friend left. He is a friend that will never leave you.
He is a friend who voluntarily suffered to save you. He is a friend who died so that you might have eternal life in heaven. Be open to Him and He will open the door for you.”
For those in the Watch Tower and for the hundreds listening at home, Brother Alvin’s words were like the cool waters of an oasis to a people walking through a desert.