Biblical message found amid Gatlinburg fires spreading rapidly

By Jeremy Henderson

Special to The Alabama Baptist

Had it just been any page from the Bible — something from Leviticus or Proverbs or something — sure, he probably still would have put it on Facebook. It would have been shared. Family. Friends. “Wow.”

That it was that page? And the sharing options just got real. Strangers. Snopes. USA Today.

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Because the charred remains from Chapter One of the Book of Joel that Isaac McCord found Nov. 29 at Dollywood practically read like an Associated Press report on the wind-driven wildfires that killed at least 14 people, displaced thousands and turned 15,000 acres of Sevier County, Tennessee, into hell on earth.

“Burned trees … scorched wilderness … people trembling in sacred mountains.”

For days, McCord, the theme park’s human resources training coordinator, didn’t know how bad it was. No one really did. Officials currently put the total number of buildings damaged or destroyed at 1,684. Owners and renters of many still-standing homes have only this week been allowed to return, and only between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. There’s still a curfew in Gatlinburg. No-go zones. Conflicting reports.

“There’s a lot misinformation going around right now about the infrastructure,” McCord says. “What’s burned, what’s not.”

Last week, folks at the Mysterious Mansion officially “confirmed” on Facebook that the popular Gatlinburg tourist attraction had burned to the ground. The photo they posted a few hours suggested otherwise.

CNN said something about the Ober Gatlinburg ski park being wiped off the map. That wasn’t true either.

Still the feeling he has from what he has seen and heard is, in his words, “apocalyptic,” which just so happens to be the word Bible scholars use to describe the chapter of scripture McCord likely now knows better than any other.

“Uncanny” would be an understatement, especially since he almost didn’t see it.

On the day after the fires, it was all hands on deck. Ash and soot were everywhere. Instead of pushing a pencil, McCord was pushing a broom. He and some coworkers had been sweeping leaves and other debris covering the park’s Craftsman Valley for hours.

It was depressing. His home is fine, but according to Dollywood’s Media Team, the homes of at least seven Dollywood employees were destroyed. McCord and Misty Carver were working side by side, trying to stay positive. Cracking jokes. Eventually Carver poked fun at McCord’s sweeping technique.

“I’ll never forget what she said,” McCord says. “She said ‘Is that how you clean your house?'”

Point taken. He doubled back. Covered old ground. He looked under a table he had already swept under. He had missed something — a piece of paper with words on it, sitting in a puddle. He peeled it out of the water.

“With all the winds that are happening, with all that’s going on, I was wondering how far it had traveled,” McCord says.

The answer: across the world.

After posting a photo of the page to Facebook, McCord’s cell phone died. By the time it had charged, the post had been shared more than 60,000 times. Less than 24 hours later, it was pushing 135,000.

Right now, it’s in his Dollywood office, recuperating between some laminating sheets. It’s brittle. It’s technically in two pieces. Preserving it will take some doing. He’ll probably try to frame it, he says. Maybe display it in the park somewhere.

“That’s an interesting thought,” says Pete Owens, Dollywood’s publicity director, who spent his day recently coordinating relief efforts for dozens of displaced Dollywood hosts. “I’m not sure any of us have [thought that far ahead] yet.”

If they ever do, McCord would be fine with it. He wants people to see it — to appreciate it and take comfort in the message that if a page from God’s Word survived the very destruction it describes, then Sevier County can too.

Some of the currently 80 comments on the post:

“Is God speaking? I wonder.”

“God is good and many prayers for this Nation and Tennessee as we rebuild stronger the structures and the lives affected.”

“Praise be to God, for His will we do not understand, but He loves us enough to let all know of His return soon to come.”

The response has been “mind-blowing,” McCord says.

And the experience has been life-changing.

McCord believes in God but isn’t a church-goer. When he looks for a book to read, he rarely chooses the Bible.

That may soon change, he tells people, because the Bible chose him.

Despite multiple media interviews and more than 100 requests for additional photos of the page, McCord remains eager to tell the story “because it’s something worth sharing, especially with the thousands of people who will cling to faith in this time.”

“It means the world to see this story impacting people.”

“I’ve had people message me all across the country.”

Maybe now he’ll even get a message — he’s never officially met her — from Ms. Parton herself.

She’s responded to the disaster. She’s planning to host a telethon for fire victims and has pledged, via the Dollywood Foundation, to provide $1,000 a month for six months to area families whose homes were either totally destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

Has she heard about the discovery? He’s not sure. Neither is Owens.

“I’m sure someone will make her aware of it,” Owens says.

Or she’ll just see it on Facebook. We’re up to 169,000 shares now.


About thealabamabaptist

State Baptist newspaper serving Baptists in Alabama, providing information, inspiration and interpretation as well as challenging readers to serve and find opportunities for ministry that further the kingdom of God.
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