Extending ministry through music

REMSEN – Without the annual Country/Gospel music fest, the Church of the Damascus Road couldn’t grow like it needs to, said the Rev. Paul Stone.

This is the sixth annual fest hosted by Mark and Cheryl Juhl at their farm in Remsen. Fourteen entertainers from multiple states will perform at the shaded farm grove. All admission and July 13 food sales will benefit the Church of the Damascus Road, the prison congregation in Fort Dodge Correctional Facility and the North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City. Food sales July 14 will benefit the Church’s parent organization, Prison Congregations of America.

“The only members in these congregations are the men within the walls, so obviously they can’t support a pastor, or all the expenses of running a church,” Cheryl Juhl said.

This year the church had to pay for a larger space to keep up with the growing congregation, said Stone.

“This year we footed the bill, and the labor came from the North Central Correctional Facility staff and inmates. The old dining hall was refurbished; it was down to the studs in the walls, and a new chapel now exists at Rockwell City,” he said.

“We won’t be only ones to use the chapel, but we were the ones who needed it, because we had grown enough that guys were coming down looking in the windows of the room we’d been using for 15 years, turning around and walking away because it was too crowded.”

That kind of project wouldn’t be possible without donors and fundraisers like the Juhls’ music fest, Stone said.

The church also runs a re-entry program for ex-inmates coming back into society.

“We could use a lot more re-entry teams than we have. There are a lot of guys coming out of prison with no place to go and no support system,” Stone said.

Although the church’s services are nondenominational, it is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Mark Juhl was inspired when he learned about the church at an ELCA convention, and the family decided to start doing the fundraiser.

On the second day there will be a church service featuring gospel music, Cheryl Juhl said. The rest of the time will be “a lot of country, but there’s gospel thrown in through each of these entertainers. … Like Terry Smith, so many of his songs are gospel songs.”

Smith, a songwriter from Nashville, has been part of the music fest since the beginning. Nearly all of the performers are friends with the Juhls who they met over the years attending other music festivals.

“I have more people who want to come than I can handle,” Juhl said. “I’ve had calls in the last week from two other groups that would love to come.”

Former church members who have been released from prison will also give their testimonies at the service.

“The audience listens to them better than to me, because these guys have lived it,” Stone said. “They talk about what Damascus Road does for them.”

Last year the festival raised right around $5,000, Juhl said, in spite of the heat.

“Last year the temperature was over 100 on Sunday, so I was surprised we had as many people as we did,” she said. “We had so many people say they didn’t come because it was just too hot. It was unfortunate they didn’t come, because the ones that were here said sitting out in the grove, it wasn’t hot at all.

“It’s all in the shade out there, so it’s really quite comfortable.”