Bethbirei Presbyterian leaders hope publicity ends vandalism

Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Bethbirei Presbyterian Church Elder Roy Cheeves, above, indicates where a Bible was removed from his church.

Somebody stole the pulpit Bible again from the Bethbirei Presbyterian Church, thereby disproving a legend that it can't be taken from the building, despite Internet sites repeating the tale, and church leaders want the Bible returned and restitution for damages.

So now, they're making a public appeal through the news media. The Rev. Claude McMillion agreed, "It's a toss up" on whether greater publicity will only add intrigue, or deter those who might be inclined to test the legend of the pulpit Bible at the Bethbirei Presbyterian Church.

"There's a legend that you can't carry the Bible out of this church without something happening to you," Elder Roy Cheeves said after the crime that's listed as a burglary on Marshall County Sheriff's Deputy Keith Jolley's incident report filed Feb. 7.

"The first I remember was that they got the story started like gossip -- that the church was haunted," Cheeves said, retelling the tale that has some variations. "One is that a boy went in with another boy. The first one opened the Bible randomly to the name of the other boy."

While it seems like an assumption, Cheeves says the first boy could have opened the Bible previously, so when he re-entered the church late at night, the book was already open to a chapter, or verse with the first name of his friend who then might start to believe the legend.

Then the first boy "picked up the Bible and started walking out and said, 'Oh, it's getting heavy. It's getting heavy. I'd best go back,'" the elder said.

"That was one person's tale of it," Cheeves said.

His conclusion: "He just made that up because every Bible there that has been stolen from there was taken out" of the Bethbirei Presbyterian Church.

Cheeves, 79, is just the man to know about the legend. He's been a member of the church all his life. His parents attended the church all their lives. His mother's family is buried in the church graveyard. But there's a recent reason.

"The rough part is the Bible [stolen some 9-10 days ago, now] was given in memory of my son [Jeffrey Cheeves] who died in a car crash last spring," the elder said.

The crash was on Interstate 24 near Manchester on March 8, 2010, when Jeffrey was driving to work. "They said he hit his brakes and the lady behind, hit him and his SUV went off the road and rolled. It was rolled up like a can. He was killed instantly. He was 38. People gave money in his name and we bought a Bible in his name.

"When he was in high school," Cheeves continued, "somebody broke into the church."

That time, a Duncan Phyfe sofa was taken. It's back, providing a place for the preacher and others to sit during a service.

Jeffrey Cheeves "knew about it before we did, and he found out who took it," the elder said. The son apparently told his suspects he wouldn't identify them if they returned the sofa and the Bible.

"They'd gotten it out, and then they put it back in the vestibule," the elder said. "There was straw all over it. Apparently they had it in a truck with straw...

"The pastor's son was about the same age and somehow (Jeffrey) found out about it."

That was decades ago.

"When my son was big, I told Claude [McMillion, the preacher] I never did get a chance to ask him about it... He died when he was 38."

Almost two years ago, lawmen "caught six boys, all from Murfreesboro, who'd broken into the church. Three were under 18. Three were over 18. They stole a Bible and an old picture and a piece of paper with names on it of who gave money to redecorate the back room in the name of Frank Houston," a long-time member of the church.

"One boy in the bunch was black and his daddy was black. He [the father] came up to me and said, 'Boys will be boys," and, 'I used to go to Chapel Hill to see the [ghost] light'" of a signalman who lost his head when hit by a train.

"I said, 'Well, you didn't break in, did you?' and he said 'No.'

"I asked him, 'Is there anything lower than stealing a Bible?' And he said, 'Well, I understand.'"

The legend of the pulpit Bible is said to have started in Chapel Hill at the African-American Old Egypt Church that was vandalized so badly by those testing the legend that the church is no longer there, Cheeves said.

There's also a story about boys being caught in the Bethbirei Presbyterian Church, but one was overlooked and, as lawmen were taking the others away, the remaining boy came out saying he didn't want to be left alone in the church.

During another incident, the word "die" was spray painted in black on the red carpet.

During the most recent incident, overnight Sunday, Feb. 6, to Monday morning, Feb. 7, a stick was used to break colored glass panes in two windows. A few panes were broken on one side and nearly all were broken in the lower half of another window.

"They stole the pulpit Bible," Cheeves said. "That's all."

The deputy reports it as valued at nearly $541. That doesn't include shipping from the manufacturer who bound it with black goatskin.

"They did over $1,000 worth of damage," church pianist Frankie Compton said.

It's only been in recent years that the church has been kept locked, except Sundays, or during church events.

"Before we started to lock it up, they'd have parties here -- young people would," the elder said.

He's the second oldest member. Compton, 87, of Bethbirei Road, is the oldest. For 50 years, she was the organist at the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg.

Years ago, she and her husband, Alford, and others had a quartet.

"We'd drive home late and see lights on and call the police and they'd go and break it up," Compton said. "It was, more or less I guess, a hangout for teenagers."

They were "drinking beer, mostly," she said of what went on.

"One of the members offered to put bars on the doors and the windows, but they just decided to let him do the doors," she said, although there are bars on windows for the restroom and the "sessions room."

Compton doesn't believe the legend and attributes the vandalism to "just meanness."

Gene Scott, another member of the church, was also disheartened by the latest vandalism and theft, so she called WSMV-TV reporter Dennis Ferrier who'd reported a few years ago that she and her husband, Lucian, were U-T fans for 30 years.

Ferrier's Friday night story started by noting that if an Internet web surfer searched for Bethbirei Church in Marshall County then "ghost stories will pop up," and that the pulpit Bible legend has "caused real life pain."

Now, the TV story is available more than once, just as this newspaper story might, among others. The recent reports suggest that people call lawmen with information about who burglarized the church on Feb. 6-7. Marshall County Sheriff Norman Dalton issued a public appeal on Feb. 8 asking that information be reported to his detectives at 359-6122 or to Crime Stoppers at 359-4867.

"Maybe somebody will talk and we'll get the Bible back," Rev. McMillion said.