HENRY — You don’t expect to encounter the anguish of hell, the wails of the condemned and the maniacal laugher of the devil in church, but that scene played out this month at Providence Baptist Church in Henry.
However, organizers of the church’s annual Christian Judgment Drama made clear that ending up in hell is just one choice in life — the other is Jesus and heaven, brought to life in the sanctuary, where delicate fairy lights gave a gentle glow in the room with windows darkened, and light, fluffy tulle and fabrics covering the surfaces to give a peaceful, otherworldly look.
Though people know it’s all a show, still most of the visitors of the 50-minute drama were wiping tears and sniffling throughout the event.
‘There are consequences’
“It’s not a haunted house,” Judy Allen told the people who were waiting for their turn to enter. “Some people feel it is because it’s around Halloween, but the drama is following through a real world scenario that some people do encounter.” It is meant to show that “there are consequences to the choices that you make.”
Pam Taylor brought the group of eight into the church through a downstairs door. She would be the guide for the 50-minute program.
The audience entered a room set up in a family scene. They were directed to stand against a wall, behind a line of tape. As Blake Ervin (Blake Pagans) was tending baby Opal (Opal Pagans) and Mrs. Steph (Stephanie Harrison) was tutoring McKenna Ervin, (McKenna Roderick), McKenna and her brother, Matthew (Matthew Taylor) were worried about their father coming home.
True to form, Travis Ervin (Travis Pagans) came home yelling, and tragedy ensued. He shouted and carried on so convincingly that the audience against the wall flinched and practically cowered.
Taylor led the group back into the hall, gave a brief narrative and then led them back into the room to a different scene.
Thus went the program, with the group in and out of rooms so transformed into new settings — a solemn church, a raucous party house — that they had no semblance to their origins as Sunday school classrooms.
After a series of happenings, the audience, by then nearly all in tears, was led to a room at which the archangel (Tim Allen) stood with the Book of Life. As the various characters, now dead, entered the room, he pronounced their destinations.
Shadowy demons rushed out of a dark cavern to grab those destined for hell, while peaceful angels led those meant for heaven through a bright doorway through which the sounds of “Hallelujah” played each time the door was opened.
Then the archangel called, one by one, the names of those in the audience. Each stepped forward, and he reminded them that their day of judgment also one day will arrive.
The audience walked next into hell, a dark room glowing lightly and flashing occasionally with eerie red lights. The figures behind the netting were more shadow than human. Amidst groans and supplications, the devil (Patrick Pruitt) ranted and taunted them.
Finally, the group was led into the sanctuary as heaven. As each entered, an angel covered his or her shoulders with a white, gold-trimmed shawl. It was a peaceful scene of angels, Jesus (Kenny Sawyer) and even Noah (Derick Mathena). Not to give away the ending, but it included a cheerful meeting between McKenna and Jesus (at the end of which they high-fived each other) and joyous reunion between a grateful Blake and Opal (who was brought in by an angel and given to her real-life and character mother).
After the audience exited the drama, they sat in the fellowship hall. There, Pastor Eugene Chitwood stood at the podium and talked in a gentle voice.
“We try to deal with different things as we perform,” he said, including anger and drug use. “We saw also that you can be totally innocent but if you are at the wrong place at the wrong time, you can be a victim of circumstance.”
But the program had a main point, he said: “‘Is your name in that book, the Book of Life.’ … It’s known that every one of us in this room is going to die at some point. We believe that’s not the end; that’s the beginning of where we’re going to be.”
After the audience left, the pastor talked more about the program. The church has been doing it for nine years, and about 325 people have attended it in recent years.
“We don’t try to proselytize or get them to come to our church,” he said. “We just want to get the word out” about salvation.
The church dedicates two weekends to performances, once an hour for several hours on the Fridays and Saturdays. The programs are fully booked each year, he said.
This is the church’s ninth judgment drama, Chitwood said. Because the event is full every year, the church takes registration. Admission is free.
While the church has toyed with the idea of having it on a larger scale for more audience, they feel having the audience in smaller groups makes for a stronger impact, he said.
It takes an effort to set it up: They begin three to four weeks ahead of time, he said. Most of the scrambling is done the week before the drama opens, when the chairs are moved from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall for the sanctuary to be made over. Even though the sanctuary looks beautiful as “heaven,” worship services are held in the fellowship hall.
“We don’t spare anything to make it more appealing,” Chitwood said. “We don’t want to overburden, but yet we want to get the message out.”
Behind the scenes
Taylor, the guide, also is the program’s author and the pastor’s daughter. Tracy King and the pastor’s wife, Sammye Chitwood, were assistant guides.
Judy Allen handled registration and check-in.
Wilson Mason and John Flanigan were the greeters.
Other actors were Beth Milam (Drug Addict Mom), Lucas Williams (Drug Addict’s Son), KeShaún Wright (Drug Dealer), Aleah Scott (Good Teenager), Don Gray (Pastor Don) and Randy Booth and Debra Mathena (Rescue Workers).
Demons were portrayed by Vicki Alderman, Mike Alderman, Zeke Hall, Brandon Mathena and Tyler Williams.
Angels were Linda Hall, Jo Ann Sawyer, Brenda Meeks, Debra Mathena, Cathy Gray, Bonnie Stump, Tommy Stump, Vicki Meadors, Jackson Meadors, Emma Meadors, Addyson Meadors, Collyn Harrison, Amber Sharpe, Courtney Sharpe, Autumn King, Jessie Mathena, Gabriel Mathena, Izabella Austin, Jennifer Austin, Christopher Austin and Josh Mathena.
Mike Austin was in charge of sound and video. The set-up and decoration crew were Sammye Chitwood, Pam Taylor, Linda Hall, Brenda Meeks, Jo Ann Sawyer, Kenny Sawyer, Eugene Chitwood, Vicki Alderman, Andrew Meadors, Vicki Meadors, John Flanigan, Zeke Hall, Tommy Stump, Johnny Mathena and Bonnie Stump.
Jean Davis, Lela Young, Frances Allen, Tim Allen, Judy Allen, Pam Taylor, Kenny Sawyer and Jo Ann Sawyer provided snacks not just to the performers, who were at the church for hours, but also to the audience.
One cast member, Samantha Gray of Rocky Mount, who always had portrayed an angel in the program, was missing. She died Aug. 18 at age 33 and is buried in the cemetery behind the church.
This year’s event was held in Gray’s honor, Judy Allen said. She was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome and was waiting on a heart transplant, but then she got Non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer, which removed her eligibility for a transplant.
“We do this to serve our community,” Judy Allen said.
“First, for those who [have not accepted Jesus] to plant a seed; and second, for Christians who have gone off the track,” to help the focus back on what is important, Allen added.
“We are busy. We’re small and rural, but we are busy,” Sammye Chitwood said of Providence.
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