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Chapter 8: Gaither Homecoming
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Thursday, January 2, 8:00 P.M.
It seemed like no time at all until the wives arrived at the station, ready for dinner and the concert. Everyone seemed to be talking at once as the round of introductions was made. As they were leaving, Masterson said, "Listen, folks, I don't want to hear any more of this 'Rev. and Mrs. Masterson' stuff. We are Jason and Ronni. You're Dan and Karen. Agreed?" The Marlows agreed with a smile and everyone climbed into the Jeep Grand Cherokee for the short drive over to the Outback Steakhouse, an excellent restaurant in Mechanicsburg.
When the server asked if anyone wanted something from the bar before dinner, Jason looked at Dan and Karen but they both shook their heads. After the man left, Dan said, "Don't feel we're in bondage tonight because you're a preacher. We just don't drink at all, ever."
"There's quite a story behind what Dan just said," Karen continued soberly. "You may not realize it but we have a grown son, Mark. He lives over in New Jersey and works at an institution for persons with mental disabilities. Well, Mark was married seven years ago this past Thanksgiving Day." Karen's eyes glistened and Dan had to shift his gaze to the far side of the crowded dining room. "On Christmas eve of that same year they were coming over to our place to exchange gifts. But they never made it. A drunk who had just left a bar came around a curve on their side of the road and hit them head on. Cristy, Mark's wife, died before the ambulance arrived. When they went to tow their car away, Cristy's blood was all over the presents in the back seat. Since then, we've never touched a drop, whether we're driving or not."
Dan wished Karen hadn't told that story. Kind of put a damper on the party. At least she didn't tell how Mark almost lost his mind after the accident. How he'd gone to that bar and smashed the place up, almost killing the bartender. How he'd mounted a frenetic one-man campaign to keep drinking drivers off the road, even to the extent of circulating a petition stating that all bars with parking lots should lose their liquor licenses. Mark had refused to get involved with MADD or any other organized effort against drunk driving. Just a bitter, lonely man, striking out in anger against a social and legal problem which his society all but ignored.
As Dan tuned back in to the party, he realized that Jason had smoothly changed the subject and was telling Ronni about the plans being made for a Gospel radio program on WMOR.
Karen was quick to match his tone. "You certainly must be a busy man, Jason. Ronni was telling me on the way down this afternoon how much is involved in pastoring a church like Bethany Community. How do you find time to be a DJ, too?"
"Gospel radio is my hobby and my only hobby," Jason explained as he accepted a massive cut of prime rib from the waitress. "I don't hunt or fish or play tennis or race around on a snowmobile, or even play golf. I give all my free time to Gospel music."
"I don't know anything about this Gospel music but if my husband is willing to put you on the air, you must have something on the ball. He's pretty choosy about who and what he lets go out over his station."
"You're telling me," Jason responded with a grin. "Wouldn't even consider my proposal until I did a demo tape, right on the spot."
The arrival of the rest of the platters halted conversation. After Jason offered a brief prayer of thanks, primary attention was given to the delicious meals each had ordered.
By 6:45 the group was back in the Grand Cherokee, heading toward Hershey and the eight o'clock concert with Bill Gaither and the Gaither Homecoming. As the couples chatted comfortably, Dan kept one ear tuned to WMOR which was playing softly over the rear stereo speakers. At seven, he dropped out of the conversation to listen closely to the AP network news. Suddenly he leaned forward and tapped Jason on the shoulder.
"Listen! Turn that up, please!"
Jason responded instantly and the network announcer's voice was heard clearly by all four of the car's occupants.
" . . . resident has been reported missing by institutional administrator Mark Marlow. The severely disabled young man apparently wandered off a familiar path in a heavy snowstorm and is now thought to be lost in several acres of undeveloped land on the campus. Dozens of the institution's employees are combing the area surrounding the spot where Jackie Dark was last seen and Administrator Marlow is asking for community volunteers to aid in the search . . . "
As the newscast moved on to another story, Dan spoke to no one in particular, "What a rotten thing to happen to one of those poor people."
"Mark must be under an awful lot of pressure, too. He's AOD at Walnut Valley tonight, Dan," Karen said softly with a mother's true concern for her own offspring.
Jason spoke quietly from the driver's seat. "I believe God cares just as much about the little people as he does anyone else. Would you folks mind if we had a mini prayer meeting right here as we drive along? I'd like to pray for Jackie Dark and all the folks who are helping to find him." The Marlows murmured their consent but were secretly glad that Jason would be doing the praying. Neither of them had ever prayed out loud in public and the number of their silent prayers were countable.
For the next three or four minutes Jason voiced a simple prayer which was relaxed and conversational in nature but still appeared to be sincere. Dan had never heard anyone pray quite like that and speculated that he might be able to manage that kind of praying with a little private practice.
The rest of the trip was made in silence and in a matter of minutes the two couples were walking across the freshly-plowed parking lot toward the Giant Center. Neither Karen nor Dan were sure what to expect. Both had watched the Hershey Bears play hockey in this building and had seen numerous ice shows here over the years. But a Gospel concert?
Inside, Jason led the way to what proved to be excellent seats in the upholstered lower level. While they were waiting for the music to begin, he explained the Homecoming Choir was a group of up to 200 Gospel music recording and concert artists organized and directed by Bill Gaither. "In addition to ticket revenue, most of the Homecoming concerts are videotaped and then those tapes are sold around the world." As he spoke, video cameras and sound equipment were being adjusted in preparation for recording tonight's concert.
"We've already found a place to hear the Homecoming Choir right in this area, on cable. Try Channel 56 most Saturday nights at 10:00 P.M. Sometimes TNN carries them also. "Hey, Ronni. Maybe we'll see ourselves on TV in a couple of months."
The various singers would be performing in the round and their seats were at center ice and quite close to the circular stage. As seven o'clock approached, the Marlows were impressed with the size of the crowd which was rapidly pouring into the arena. Dan was already beginning to feel good about his decision to run Gospel music on Saturday afternoons. If this Bill Gaither, a guy he had never heard of before today, could fill the Giant Center, there just might be something more to Gospel music than most secular radio people realized. Dan was amazed when Jason told them how Bill Gaither had written many of the songs they would hear tonight and had even toured with his wife, Gloria and brother, Danny, as the Bill Gaither Trio.
When the music began, Dan definitely was impressed by the Choir's solid SATB harmony. Jason had told them that collectively the Choir had recorded several thousand albums over the past 40 years or so. They ought to sound good. The songs were extremely singable, judging from audience participation, but neither Dan nor Karen had heard most songs before. As the tempo increased, many in the audience were clapping hands and tapping feet in time with the music.
Dan made his living with music and it was quite a while before he could stop auditioning and start enjoying. It was a song about how God had created singing in the lives and hearts of humans which arrested his attention and got him to really listen. Karen was especially impressed by Gloria's narration about the role that different churches had play in here life. The church where she first dated Bill...the church were they were married...the church where they had their first child dedicated...the churches were her parents were laid to rest. Then Bill Gaither segued the Choir into a song about how Jesus was going to come back down to earth and take all the born-again Christians into heaven, the dead ones and the living ones as well. The Marlows exchanged puzzled glances at this particular concept. Dan made a mental note to ask Jason for more information about this phenomenon which the Choir had referred to as the Rapture.
During the intermission the Mastersons made a beeline for the various music displays on the main concourse, Dan and Karen trailing in their wake. The Marlows were astounded at the large selection of Gaither Homecoming Concert videos, CDs, and sheet music which the crowd was snapping up as though they were collector's items.
After returning to their seats, Jason leaned over and asked the Marlows how they were enjoying the concert. As they responded in the affirmative, the lights lowered and both couples leaned back in their seats for the resumption of the program.
The second half seemed to be built around the concept of the family with the songs reflecting that theme. Another Gloria narration was followed by a moving song called "I Am Loved". By the final chorus, the vast audience was on its feet, swaying rhythmically and singing along with the Choir.
At the end of the beautiful song, Bill Gaither rose from the piano bench and a single spot followed him to the near edge of the circular stage. In a very simple manner, not at all pedantic or ecclesiastical, the singer and songwriter explained how human beings need to experience the love of God through a personal relationship with His Son, Jesus Christ. At the conclusion of his devotional, Bill invited people who had never personally accepted Jesus as God's love gift to the human race to move down to an open space in front of the stage for a special prayer.
Without warning, Dan felt a strange series of sensations flow over his body. His palms were damp with sweat, his knees sagged with uncharacteristic weakness, and his vision blurred with unshed tears. He stole a sidelong glance at Karen. She was standing with bowed head and closed eyes, apparently waiting patiently for the audience to be dismissed. Convinced he was suffering from a touch of superficial emotionalism, Dan forced a yawn and his feelings slowly returned to normal.
Then the lights were up and the crowd was streaming toward the exits. Behind him, Dan could hear the Choir and band swing into a tune he remembered from the first part of the concert, something about the king coming. The audience knew the song well and everyone sang along as they shuffled slowly down the steps and along the walkways. Kind of a nice tune, Dan thought as he found himself humming along.
No one said much on the ride back to Camp Hill and soon mutual expressions of "thanks for a nice evening" were being exchanged in the WMOR parking lot. Karen was quite excited by the fact that the Gaithers had written so many of the songs on the program and mentioned that fact a couple times as they got into their separate cars.
In a matter of minutes a three-car motorcade was wending its way north along the Susquehanna River, following U.S. 11-15 home to Liverpool. Jason and Ronni led in the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Karen followed in the Buick Park Avenue Ultra, and Dan brought up the rear in the Bug.
occupants of all three cars were listening to WMOR and when the AP network news
came on at midnight, they learned that Jackie Dark was still missing somewhere
on a snowy North Jersey hillside. Jason and Ronni repeated their earlier prayer.
Behind them, Karen and Dan could only bite their lips and wish both Jackie and
Mark good luck.
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