The day of my stepfather’s celebration of life service was a brisk, sunny Saturday morning, as good a day as any to celebrate life. We got up before daylight, made coffee, put on our nice clothes, packed the car, and hit the road for the three-hour drive up to Sparta, where we would meet the rest of the family before all the people started showing up to hug us or shake our hands as we stood in a long line to greet them.

For Tony Campolo, spending last week amid a gathering of senior citizens from across the Southeast was just about the most exciting thing imaginable. And that’s even taking into account that he views “exciting” as an overused word that’s best avoided.

fr howardwhiteRev. Howard “Howdie” White, former rector of the Episcopal Grace Church in the Mountains in Waynesville, is being investigated in two states after being accused of sexual misconduct with minors. 

coverJune Johnson’s foray into the world of gardening began in the dead of winter. A sunny January day last year inspired her to venture outside, and her walk brought her to the path behind Maggie Valley United Methodist Church and the grassy lawn surrounding it. The sight made her pause.

SEE ALSO: Conference digs toward the root of hunger in WNC 

“Having grown up around farming, I thought, ‘Why don’t they have a church garden?’ and roamed into the back of the church,” recalled Johnson, a retired teacher and native of Haywood County.

fr churchesTown board members said no to expanding Sylva’s zoning laws to be more inclusive for churches downtown, citing a desire to reserve the center of the city for commerce, nightlife and retail.

fr sylvachurchA church is looking to bring a little more religion to downtown Sylva, but some local business owners, as well as elected officials, are skeptical of the move.

fr steeplejacksAs a third generation steeplejack, Tony Stratton is used to a view from the top. As one of a handful of people in the nation still specializing in repairing church steeples the old-fashioned way, Stratton travels the country rappelling from the towering spires while repairing and restoring them.

A homeless shelter has opened in Sylva to provide an escape from the frigid nights.

The shelter, located at Lifeway Church in Sylva, is the only homeless shelter in Jackson County. It will remain open through March.

About a month ago several local organizations met to discuss the need for a homeless shelter amid fears the spiraling economy would leave people with nowhere to turn.

Local churches have committed to staff the homeless shelter in Sylva with volunteers.

The shelter is working in partnership with the Community Table to provide meals.

Lifeway Pastor Mike Abbott doesn’t know how many homeless people there are in the Sylva area, but said, “We definitely have homelessness.”

With the winter being so cold this year, there needs to be a place for them, he said. The shelter opened about two weeks ago, and as of Sunday (March 1) no one had stayed there.

He said the homeless may not realize it’s there or they may have gone south or to Buncombe County by now. The shelter is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week.

Abbott said the plan is for Lifeway to host the shelter again next year with it opening Nov. 1.

“I’m excited that in a relatively short period, community organizations and churches were able to come together and accomplish opening this up,” Abbott said. “This speaks well of the community. A lot of good people made this happen.”

The shelter can accommodate about 20 people and there is additional space for women with children and families, he said.

Mountain Projects Executive Director Patsy Dowling said the economy is causing people who normally wouldn’t need help to seek assistance.

“More people are losing their jobs and their healthcare,” she said. “The faces of people in need are changing.”

Many people who have lost their jobs and need food stamps can’t get them because they have assets that preclude them from qualifying, she said.

Laid off employees are having trouble paying their rent and can’t get help because the rental assistance program waiting list at Mountain Projects is “years long,” said Dowling.

Utility bills are becoming harder to pay for people affected by the economy.

Churches in Haywood County have banded together to open a homeless there, too. Space is being provided at Camp New Life.

Dowling spearheaded the community meetings to bring the homeless shelters to Jackson and Haywood counties. Her interest was sparked in December when there was a homeless couple in Waynesville that needed a place to stay.

There was nowhere in Waynesville and nothing available in Asheville. She felt bad that the only thing Haywood County could offer the couple was gas money to get to a shelter in Tennessee.

“We should have a place for people to get back on their feet,” she said.

Asked if she thinks it took too long to get shelters open in Jackson and Haywood counties, Dowling said she is not going to look back.

She said there is also a need for food and clothing, noting that the Community Table may expand its hours and her church in Tuckasegee may open a food pantry.

Dowling has a long list of heartbreaking stories, including a 61-year-old woman who can’t afford heating oil and groceries.

“I hear so many stories of people who were making $20 an hour last year and now are walking into my office with utility disconnect notices,” she said.

A member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Franklin is prohibited from bringing his hunting knife to church after another member saw him with the blade at a Sunday service and got worried.

The knife carrier, Charles Rowe, said there is no reason to be alarmed by his utensil. He simply wants to wear his knife to church because, “It’s part of me and part of who I am.”

But even in Appalachia, where mountain men once thrived, Dr. Bill David, the complainant, said knives still shouldn’t be allowed in church.

“I’m opposed to bringing weapons to church,” David told The Smoky Mountain News from his home in Athens, Ga. “I didn’t confront him personally. He was sitting in front of me. I kept my mouth shut. I didn’t want him stabbing at me with that knife. He may get mad at someone. It should never be permitted.”

Knives aren’t allowed in the post office either, David noted.

The debate has resulted in the church adopting a no weapons policy and sparked a vigorous discussion over an individual’s rights.

David said he has no reason to believe that Rowe would do anything violent with the knife.

“I don’t know him personally,” said David, 84.

Rowe said he doesn’t even know who made the complaint.

Church President Virginia Wilson said she believes the knife scared David because his great grandchildren were threatened with a knife at a school in Athens.

David said he would have opposed the knife at church anyway.

Rowe said he thinks David overreacted to his knife. The knife is a tool, not a weapon, said Rowe.

“I think our society has become too paranoid,” Rowe told The Smoky Mountain News in an interview at his house on Saturday (Feb. 28). “I wear it everywhere.”

 

‘The knife is part of me’

Wearing a knife symbolizes a “lifestyle I try to aspire to — living off the land like our forefathers did,” said Rowe. “It’s the way I grew up.”

Carrying a knife also goes back to his Celtic heritage, he said.

David balked at Rowe’s saying the knife is part of his heritage: “I don’t care what he says he is.”

Rowe added that he values self-sufficiency and that he was part of the “back to the land movement” in the 1960s.

His knife is not a bowie knife or sword, but just a simple hunting knife. He doesn’t conceal it but carries it on his hip. There is no state law that says he can’t carry his knife, he said.

Rowe said he joined the Universalist church because of its “openness and willingness to celebrate diversity.” Not allowing him to carry his knife contradicts what the church stands for, he said.

The Unitarian Church welcomes people of all faiths — Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, agnostics, atheists and Jews.

Rowe is a pagan and has been attending the Franklin Unitarian church for about four years. Prior to that he attended the Unitarian church in Richmond, Va., since the early 1990s, he said.

He said he wore the knife to the Unitarian church in Franklin since he started attending. The religion’s principles include the inherent worth and dignity of every person and a free search for truth.

 

A letter to the congregation

Rowe said his main problem with the ordeal has been the way the church handled it. He said he wanted to express his views to the entire congregation, but he felt church officials censored him.

“I wasn’t given a chance to discuss it rationally,” he said.

Rowe also said he wasn’t give a chance to meet with the person who complained. Rowe sent an e-mail to a church official explaining his side and asked that it be forwarded to the entire congregation, but it wasn’t.

“This is just one example of why we need open conversation within this congregation,” said Rowe.

Eventually he did get some of the church members’ e-mail addresses through an e-mail sent to him. He composed a long letter stating his position and sent it out.

In the letter he wrote, “Our society was founded and nurtured on the ideals of rugged individualism and independence.”

It is wrong for the church to prohibit him from wearing his knife just because one person was scared by it, said Rowe.

“We all too often succumb to the tyranny of the least stable among us, giving up our precious freedoms to appease those who suffer from irrational fears and paranoia so as not to offend anyone,” he wrote.

“Unitarians try to be very politically correct and don’t want to offend anyone,” Rowe said.

He said it is wrong for the church to prejudge people who carry knives: “It is this sort of prejudice that I thought our church was supposed to be working against,” he wrote.

Rowe posted his letter on the bulletin board, but Wilson didn’t allow it to stay up. She wanted to handle the issue at the board level rather than it getting out to the congregation and “alarming” members.

Church board member Joan Hawthorne said Rowe could have asked to be put on the board’s agenda or spoken during a Sunday service.

 

No weapons policy adopted

A double homicide at a Universalist church in Knoxville in July was brought up when Rowe was told he couldn’t bring his knife to church anymore. But Rowe didn’t think that was fair.

“It doesn’t relate because the person (killer) wasn’t a member, and I didn’t have a gun,” said Rowe.

The shooting in Knoxville, which also injured six, is “an example” of why David says he’s opposed to Rowe bringing a knife to church. David said he is very much in favor of the weapons policy.

“That isn’t a place to hunt,” said David. “I’ve been a minister for 57 years and never been in a church with weapons in it before.”

Church board member Hawthorne said ever since the shooting that the church considered adopting a weapons policy, but Rowe’s knife was the “catalyst” to get the rule drafted. She noted that other places, such as airplanes, prohibit carrying knives.

Rowe is adamant about his right to wear his knife to church and will continue to argue the point “infinitum,” said Hawthorne.

The weapons policy now hangs in the entryway to the church and in the fellowship hall and states no weapons may be brought to the church. Wilson said Rowe is welcome back at church “without his knife.”

Hawthorne said she was also bothered by the knife.

“When he comes in with a knife it doesn’t feel like a safe place,” she said.

Rowe shouldn’t take it personally that he can’t wear his knife to church, said member Linda Winn.

“I don’t think you need a knife at church,” Winn said. “We’re a peaceful group of people.”

Even if it means he can’t wear his knife, he will probably go back to the church, Rowe said. He could simply wear an empty knife sheath at church, he said.

But he said he hates to give in. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” he wrote in his letter.

 

No reason to fear him

Rowe’s wife, Debbie, said there is no reason church members should fear her husband, who she met online.

“I mean, half the kids who attend the church call him grandpa,” she stated as their granddaughter, Heaven, ran around the house.

It is “unfair and unjust” that he cannot wear his knife to church, Debbie said.

The first time she met him in person he was wearing it while visiting her at the Intensive Care Unit at Harris Regional Hospital in Sylva, she said. She was in the hospital for an appendectomy.

“I see it as an extension of him,” Debbie said. “I’m just as likely to reach for the knife as a tool as he is.”

When he went to the hospital wearing the knife, he walked past security guards and nurses and “no one flinched,” Debbie said.

Rowe added that when he attended a Macon County commissioners meeting wearing the knife all that Sheriff Robbie Holland said was “nice knife.”

Rowe is unemployed living on disability, he said. He said his disability is “fatigue.”

He said he has a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, religion and social services from Virginia Commonwealth University.

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