Thursday, December 27, 2018

Mercer County's Season of Love

Fifty years ago,on the West Coast young people experienced the Summer of Love midst the turmoil and upheaval of old ways. The ground shook beneath the Establishment. Riots in the cities played out on national TV, as well as here in the Valley. We saw changes from the old guard even hit here. Among the hippies, drop outs and flower children, a movement for Jesus People started there, too. It spread east.
Three summers later, June 1971, with the world still in the midst of this unrest, two boys had plans of driving a paneled truck to Florida. A week before Marty Mattocks and Frank Parish were to leave, they met Jesus at the Barn in Newton Falls,Ohio. Their itinerary stopped at Mercer, as they spoke with Jim Erb, along with Deanna Snyder. They wanted to work here for the Lord.
First, Jim, offered his leadership and had the kids meet in his home. The boys and the first gathering declared they wanted to keep this out of the church building. Within weeks, fifty kids attended the weekly gatherings. The meetings had to be moved to Brandy Springs Park which worked in the summer, with camp fires providing the atmosphere for singing and testimonials. Summers always move to fall, though, with chilly evenings. The pavilion wasn't always available, either. The park couldn't keep up with the movement.
In stepped Ralph E. Watson and his wife, Louise, offering their barn one mile south of Mercer for the Thursday evening sessions of the Jesus People of Mercer County. Within two months, the crowd grew to 350, some nights up to 400. The new gospel music, a folk and rock combination played on guitars by Loree Schmidt and others, opened the meetings as the young people mingled and drifted in. Sharing what Jesus had done opened the meetings, speaking to many hearts. A speaker, either Jim or guest ministers, like Dr. Joseph Hopkins or Reverend Jack Chisholm, brought a brief message. Then a consecration song with more prayer saw the people out. About ten percent of the attenders were adults. Rainy nights, a fourteen year old Ralph Watson pulled cars out of the mud with his tractor.
The nights grew cooler and a heater was introduced. Some kids still smoked cigarettes. The insurance company threatened to not cover any damages, in fact drop the policy, if this continued. The barn proved too chilly and the movement met a dilemma.
After much prayer, they decided to erect a new structure on the Watson farm, just for the meetings.
Jim Calvert of the Calvert Lumber Company in Sharon visited the Barn, by chance, with his brother, a photographer. He learned of the need and donated the material at cost and free labor by prefabbing it in his shop. He oversaw volunteers at the new site, still on the Watson farm. Everything, including wiring and an oil furnace(which cost $500), came to $3500. The total covered by donations. Soon the Jesus People moved into a new barn ready for meetings January, 1972. They had no debt with this building, warmer than the old Barn.
The ministry could be seen as an adjunct to many churches. Jim estimated 75% of the teens were from various denominations and 25% were the hippies, and dropouts who needed to meet Jesus and probably wouldn't have felt comfortable in a church building.
Two Catholic nuns attended one night and were delighted at what they saw in the movement of the Holy Spirit. The Protestant clergy around the Valley also endorsed the movement. Lives were changed. Many of the young people affected are still involved in their churches to this day.
Jim led the Barn from 1971 to 1976. They also had three Jesus Festivals in 1974, '76 and '78. When Jim stepped down, the Barn went on for a while without him. But like many things of this era, changes in the culture outdated the specific ministry.
Many of the practices of the Barn ministry became mainstream in the churches. The music would be the most obvious. Christians debated the style of music, even leading to two different worship times to accommodate the styles. Greetings and testimonies confirm community. Healing services attract many. The Barn created community which churches need.
In a time of upheaval, like the late '60's, a special need arose for ministries like the Barn. The Jesus People Movement is still alive, as evidenced by recent e mail received. 1968 to 2018, fifty years after the Summer of Love, what will attract young people to Jesus, now?- Could a simple stable setting still invite hearts to Jesus?
Thank you to Jan Erb, Jim's widow, for the interview and pictures, and sharing the Pennsylvania Farmer article from August 12. 1972. I agree with the writer at the end of the article, “wish there were a Ralph Watson and Jim Erb in every rural district of the land!”

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