By Guest Writer
(Editor’s Note: Jack Bruce served as the pastor of the EAC from 1985-1999. He and his family now live in Atlanta, Ga., where he is the Chief Operating Officer for BIS Benefits, an employee benefits firm. He writes two blogs at www.jackintheteambox.com and www.jackwbruce.wordpress.com.)
By Jack W. Bruce Jr.
This year marks a momentous anniversary of “the church in the Parks-Belk building.” After a gestation period of several years the Elizabethton Alliance Church was birthed on April 17, 1988, as 32 charter members gathered in the Old Elizabethton Bus Station to celebrate the official organization of the church with the Christian and Missionary Alliance. I was the pastor of the new church that day and it was a day of much rejoicing for our fledgling congregation.
Twenty-five years later it can be said Elizabethton and Carter County have been blessed by the presence and ministry of the congregation affectionately known internally as EAC. Though our family left the majestic hills of East Tennessee to move to Atlanta in 1999, my wife and I cherish the 15 years we had with the EAC family and the people of Elizabethton.
As the church marks the milestone, I thought it important for the community to know the “why” there is an Elizabethton Alliance Church. A lot of people played key roles in the development of the new church. Some will point to the pastors such as my predecessor, the Rev. Larry Fish, and me. Others may point to Dr. Charles Shepson. Without a doubt, there would not be an Elizabethton Alliance Church without his vision for a new C&MA church in Carter County. Shepson had recently relocated to Carter County to found Fairhaven Ministries in Roan Mountain. Because of his affiliation with the C&MA he contacted the denominational leadership to explore a partnership to plant a new congregation. Shepson developed a small nucleus of interested individuals and, with the support of the C&MA, began home Bible studies with the hope of forming a new church. For years Charles and Elaine Shepson were key supporters of the new church.
Others were instrumental to the birthing of the church. Dorothy Shepson, Charles’ sister-in-law, was the church bookkeeper and faithful promoter of “all things Alliance.” Gilbert and Eleanor Lowenstein, Con and Dian Williams, Bob and Barbara Mick, Ken and Gloria Stumbo, Bill and Delores Graham and Larry and Carla Forbes and a growing number of students from Moody Bible Institute’s Moody Aviation each gave new momentum to the delivery of the congregation.
One of those students was Dan Whitehead. He, along with Tracey, his recent bride, was particularly instrumental in the formation of the church. I have often contemplated how the church would not have been established if it had not been for their incredibly effective ministry through music and worship. Because of Dan’s talent on the piano and keyboard, their mastery of singing and Dan’s ability to draw others into worship, our congregation eagerly anticipated their ministry each Sunday.
I was grateful to have worked alongside so many faithful and talented people during those years the church was birthed. There are many who contributed to the birth of Elizabethton’s “Park-Belk” Church, but none more than Joe and Elaine Hopkins.
Joe and Elaine Hopkins moved to Elizabethton when Joe joined the staff of Moody Aviation. Joe later founded Mission Safety International, taking safety to missionary aviation ministries around the world. Joe and Elaine were at the initial meeting with Shepson to consider the birth of the EAC. Shepson didn’t know it, but Joe and Elaine would be the most important contact he made in exploring the development of Elizabethton’s newest church.
From the very beginning, Joe, a long-time Baptist, served on the governing board of the church. Whether given an official title or not, he was the Chairman of the Board. Joe was the E.F. Hutton of the church; not being one to blurt out his opinion, when Joe spoke everyone listened. He was cautious and deliberate and always gave wise counsel. He gained the trust of others and was a key figure in establishing relationships within the community. As a Gideon helping to distribute Bibles, he worked closely with other local Christian businessmen and gained their trust, thereby giving our small church some credibility within the Christian community in Carter County.
Joe was the key stabilizing figure of the church. He would apply the cautious brakes to the young “twenty-something” pastor who always had a new idea to pursue to grow the church. Never would a significant new program, outreach or initiative be approved without first garnering the support of Joe.
Joe was also a personal friend to an inexperienced young guy trying to find his way as a pastor of a church aiming to find its footing. I remember how, long before Jason Witten ever entered the NFL, I would join Joe as we watched his beloved Cowboys play on TV in the Hopkins’ family room.
Then there was Elaine. When you see a car traveling down the road you will notice the make, model, color and external features. Yet, what makes that car move is what you can’t see. Elaine Hopkins was like the engine and transmission of our church. She wasn’t what you first saw when you looked at the EAC or viewed the platform on Sunday mornings, but when you opened the hood it was obvious why the church was able to keep moving forward. While Charles and Joe were traveling with their ministries, Elaine was the constant.
Elaine was equipped with the gift of hospitality and she put it into practice in both her home and wherever the church set up residence (the church met in seven different locations before landing in the former Parks-Belk building). The moment I and my fiancée, Julie, arrived in Elizabethton we met with Joe and Elaine in their living room. Over the next 15 years I would enter that living room hundreds of times for board meetings, Wednesday or Sunday night Bible studies or on the way to the Hopkins’ kitchen and family room for countless meals and fellowships. Elaine hosted meetings for the women and was always reaching out to the young women in the church through her hospitality.
The last statement shouldn’t be under-understood. One of the most critical pieces for a church plant is the ability to incorporate young families. Without families and children, an existing church will dwindle and a struggling new church will falter. As the church began, 15-year-old Christy Hopkins was THE youth group. One toddler, Natalie Grindstaff, was the only child. How would the church ever attract young families and children? This is where Elaine gave her greatest contribution to the church. This is why there is an Elizabethton Alliance Church.
Elaine took every opportunity to befriend all women and especially the young mothers who visited or attended the church. For the initial years, Elaine was the nursery coordinator — which meant she was available to rock, wipe, hold and feed any infant or young child that might happen into our church. Elaine set up a nursery in a hotel room at the Camara Inn while all 24 adults met in the motel’s conference room for Sunday morning services. When the congregation rented the old bus station, Elaine helped transform the cabbie’s office into a nursery equipped with calming grey and blue walls, colorful border, a blue shag remnant from Edens Carpets and a wooden rocking chair. If you brought a young child to our church, Elaine was ready.
Moody Aviation students played a significant role in the development of the church. So many students were coming to the church that at one point the school administration asked the students to “spread out” among the other churches in the county. Why did so many Moody students end up at EAC? There are several reasons, but again the answer includes Elaine. It wasn’t just the “students” who were attracted to the EAC. Rather, it often was the wives of students — mothers of young children who found EAC welcoming. Having been a missionary herself and being a wife of a pilot, Elaine could relate to these young transplanted mothers and help them acclimate to their new life in the hills of Northeast Tennessee. She welcomed them, hosted them, counseled them and cared for them. They found a home away from home because of Elaine.
And, it wasn’t just to the wives of Moody Aviation students. Perhaps her greatest gift of friendship was to one young wife and eventual mother — my wife, Julie. With our families living in Alabama and California, Elaine took on the role of a caring mother to Julie and a loving grandmother to our children. Our children were very comfortable with “Mrs. Hopkins.” I have serious doubts if this young pastor’s wife could have made the transition to being newly married and moving to an unfamiliar community without the support of Elaine.
Joe and Elaine were not the only significant figures who contributed to the successful delivery of the Elizabethton Alliance Church, but they were the central players. Without their dedication, commitment and unwavering service the embryonic church would not have survived.
Over the past 25 years many in Elizabethton and Carter County have benefited from the ministry of the EAC. Hearts and relationships have been mended. The discouraged, encouraged. Prayers answered. Souls saved. Needs met. Missionaries supported. Children taught. Youth directed. Truth defended. Hope instilled. The list goes on.
While we confess every good thing comes from the Lord, we are grateful for how He uses willing people like Joe and Elaine Hopkins who have said “Yes” to Jesus and to a community — a community that owes them an enormous debt of gratitude.