By Kelly Young

countybeat@jacksonvilleprogress.com

The last time they performed together in the Tomato Bowl, on July 4, 1976, a lone, white dove flew down from the sky and perched on the head of The Damascus Road vocalist Tommie Helm for several minutes as he sang. According to Tommie, it was a moment of profound spiritual importance to him and one that he still remembers vividly — as his eyes still get misty while telling the story 30 years later.

Looking back at their time together as The Damascus Road, the band’s members can point to numerous examples of God’s influence guiding them. The most recent instance of this “divine appointment” will come to fruition Saturday night as The Damascus Road will return to the Tomato Bowl for the first time in three decades.

The band is back in town to headline the 4th Annual Harvest Fest, which will be the grand finale of the first-ever J’ville Music Jam.

“We are playing with a young band from Frankston called Facedown, and that’s really the theme of this year’s Harvest Fest. It’s based on Psalm 145:4 that says ‘One generation shall praise your works to another and shall declare your mighty acts,'” Tommie said. “That’s what this is, it’s the older generation with the younger generation declaring the mighty acts of God.”

All five of the band’s original members will be performing Saturday night — Tommie Helm, Johnnie Helm, Pat Asher, Dennis Byram and Steve Medcalf.

According to Tommie, the band formed one piece at a time, as more individuals joined his ministry.

“The group came together a little bit at a time. I graduated out of seminary here in Jacksonville and Johnnie came back from Vietnam, and he started traveling with me ministering, and we started playing together. Along the way we met Pat and he came on to play bass guitar for us,” Tommie said. “The three of us played together for a while, and as we traveled the Lord really opened doors for us, and we went from playing small Baptist Missionary Association churches to larger Southern Baptist Convention churches.”

One example of God’s will leading the band was the way they met Dennis Byram, who became their guitarist.

“We had been ministering to the First Baptist Church in Anson, and about two weeks after our concert there I received a letter in the mail that said, ‘I saw you perform in Anson, and God wants me to be a member of your band,’” Tommie said. “And I never doubted it, it was really God’s involvement, and so we welcomed him with open arms — it was awesome, there was never a question.”

With Byram on-board, the band, previously called Spirit and Understanding, choose the name The Damascus Road, and began performing full time.

“Johnnie came up with the name “The Damascus Road” because of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. We traveled full time for five years together from 1973 to 1978, and we toured all through the southern states,” Tommie said.

During their time together the band released three albums and wrote dozens of other original songs that never made to vinyl.

Looking back on a music career devoted to worshiping and spreading the Word of God, the band still remembers the dove in the Tomato Bowl as one of the most poignant reminders to them of God’s presence in their lives.

“I had sent my wife to get 12 white doves that we were going to release during the concert, as they rang a replica of the Liberty Bell. Well, when she returned, only one of the birds was pure white, so I told Tony Green, our roadie, to only release that one white dove,” Tommie said. “It was awesome because a fog — a fine mist — had descended on the stadium and had settled on the Tomato Bowl.”

According to Tommie, he was singing the song “I Will Thank the Lord in Everything” when the dove was released.

“I was leading everyone in the song and there were tears in my eyes because of all the freedoms that we have in Christ to worship freely in America, and when the dove was released it flew up around the stage lights and descended right on top of my head,” he said. “Although I was standing, it knocked me to my knees and humbled me tremendously. I immediately thought about the baptism of Jesus, in the Jordan River, when John said he saw the Spirit descending and remaining on Him. I kept singing, and the bird remained there for about three minutes.”

The band maintains that it was not a trained bird and that there was nothing staged about what happened that night.

“That bird is one of the things my parents remember and my brothers remember — it just blew them away. We recalled that memory not too long ago, and it brought them all to tears. I bet everybody there that night remembers that,” Byram said.

Today, the members of the band have spread across the country as their lives have taken different directions, but after just a few rehearsals together, they can already feel the urge to get back together.

“It’s been 30 years, but it is a divine appointment to return to the Tomato Bowl to minister again and to share some of our testimony and the roads that we have been down,” Tommie said.

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