When we heard the muzak playing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” it was the third time for the song during our day at Dollywood. The second time was the finale of the Smoky Mountain String Band’s 3:45 performance, but the first time was in the worship service at Robert F. Thomas Chapel in Craftsman's Valley.
We didn’t time our rollercoasters quite right, so we were a couple of minutes late to the 11:30 am worship service. Chaplain Joey Buck was already welcoming the congregation of a hundred people or more and telling them that vacations were special times that God uses to alert us to His presence. Sometimes when we are out of our routine, God is able to break through.
It was only a half hour service, but Chaplain Buck made it clear that musical worship, prayer, and time in the Word would all have a place in the service. The singing was led by a Dollywood park employee who has arranged her Sunday lunch schedule for the last 28 years around being in the service.
After the service, I had a chance to talk to Chaplain Buck, who waited at the back of the chapel to greet each person. He’s been serving in the park as chaplain for years. Like most pastors, he doesn’t just work Sundays. He serves as pastor for the three thousand plus employees, leading Bible studies, being available for counseling, and, of course, being available for the myriad of special needs that come up in a facility this size.
Chaplain Joey knows other pastors who are a part of what he referred to as “leisure ministry,” serving in such varied places as ski resorts and golf courses. He believes that where people gather, God calls people to serve.
Robert F. Thomas Chapel predates Dollywood. It was built in 1973 as a part of a previous park on the grounds, Goldrush Junction. Amusement parks, like most places in Tennessee, were subject to the Blue Laws of the time. But if a church – and a worship service – was a part of the park’s facilities, how could anyone shut that down?
In 1986, Dolly Parton (or more properly, Dolly Parton Productions) bought a large interest in what was then Silver Dollar City in order to develop Dollywood. The Chapel and worship services continued, as a part of the Appalachian culture celebrated by the park. (There are other Christian markers in the park. For example, a plaque beside a Dogwood tree, explains the Christian legend about the tree.)
But who was Robert F. Thomas? He was a traveling pastor but also a medical doctor. He set up clinics in the area and was a strong proponent of vaccines. And, he, of course, delivered babies. Including a Dolly Rebecca Parton on 1/19/1946. The Parton family paid him with cornmeal.
So every Sunday, there’s a worship service, attended chiefly by park visitors but also by employees and their families and other locals who attend on a regular basis. Every week, between train rides and Country Western music shows, Christ is preached. Which is a remarkable thing.