Three Unconventional Preachers Take their Faith Beyond Church Doors

Michael Collins is executive director of The Bread of Life Free Community Kitchen. Photo by Brent Fleury

Michael Collins is executive director of The Bread of Life Free Community Kitchen. Photo by Brent Fleury

For a lot of people church is a place they go to on Sunday mornings as a way to reconnect with their spiritual side, but some do not confine their communion to a particular place or time.

Dan Smathers of Etowah is one of those people. Many people know him as “Mountain Dan the Chainsaw Man” who carves bears, birds and many other creations from tree trunks outside his roadside studio off Highway 64 between Brevard and Hendersonville, but those who stop for a closer look at his work will leave with more than a smattering of sawdust on their shoes.

“I’m out here to attract people to stop so I can tell them about the gifts and callings of God,” Smathers says during a recent break from the self-taught art experiment he has committed himself to for almost a decade. “If I can talk to one person and open their minds to follow their heart, that’s what I love and that’s what really matters.”

The 69-year-old Henderson County native wearing a crumpled cowboy hat and sweat-stained suspenders spent earlier sections of his life as a salesman across parts of the South and later as a timber logger in Washington State until he returned to Etowah to open a landscaping business.

He was content to do just that until the September 11th terrorist attacks sent the economy into a tailspin and a lack of work resulted in him laying off most of his workforce and wondering what else he could do with his talents.

Thirty years in the timber business had made him handy with a chainsaw and gave him an idea. “I had seen men carving bears from tree trunks and I had seen more than my share of black bears when I was on the job, so I thought I might be able to make a few and sell them,” he says. “The first three I did, I accidentally cut their heads off, but the next three I made sold and I just bought more wood and kept on carving.”

That was January 2002 and since then his woodworking repertoire has expanded to include birds, squirrels, raccoons and some more inspirational creations. “My favorite thing to carve is either an eagle or an angel, because they represent the supernatural and I consider myself supernatural,” he confesses. “I believe in eternal life and I don’t want to wait until there is dirt on my face to know different. An eagle has the nature that God wants man to have. It mates for life and uses the strong winds of a storm to soar higher. Through Christ, we can get through anything.”

While his chainsaw-carved sculptures are not cheap, Smathers does not charge a dime to share the gospel with those who purchase his artwork. “God gave me a gift and it wasn’t a second-hand gift,” he says as his eyes sparkled in the shade of his roadside studio. “It’s all to glorify Him. I run a chainsaw because I am good at it. I witness because I am called to do it. It’s my responsibility to be a good witness.”

Another person who feels that strong calling is Micki Cabaniss Eustler, who is working to establish a prison chapel at the Buncombe Correctional Center for the 182 minimum-security inmates housed there, as well as through her local efforts to publish religious literature through Asheville’s Grateful Steps Publishing House to further share the word.

“I never saw myself as one to be involved with prisoners, having invested much energy in my career as an OBGYN doctor in starting rape-crisis programs and teaching victims’ rights until 2001 when my husband Dan Cabaniss died,” she explains. “He had been going to the prison teaching disciple classes because his life had been transformed from agnosticism in the process to a strong faith. He said the prison needed a chapel and in his obituary I asked in lieu of flowers for people to send memorial gifts to BCC chapel building fund (now the New Life Center fund). Enough money came in to launch the project, so I was given his seat on the Community Resource Council.”

While many churches in the area have stained glass windows and immaculate alters, such fancy furnishings and serene surroundings are not found where inmates are encouraged to explore their spiritual sides. “There is only a tiny classroom that has to follow a schedule of all faiths and educational programs that need to use it during the week,” Cabaniss Eustler describes the present arrangement for prisoners who are about to be released. “The other place meetings can be held with inmates is the dining room, but this is very impractical. The metal seats and tables are bolted down so chairs can’t be turned in one direction to face a speaker and it is noisy.”

The convicts at the center do not have bars on their windows or live lives in restraints as they prepare to re-enter society, and she feels that explaining personal salvation is another important part in their evolution. “I am not in the mode of converting people, but living a life best that I can of Christian principles that I trust will draw people closer to the teachings of Christ rather than driving them away,” she elaborates, noting that some of her personal inspiration has been from working on the books God Can Use Anyone … Even Me and Near Death with inmates she met through the local prison ministry. “Sometimes in the traditional churches we present ourselves as we think we want others to see us: Upstanding and faultless. You can’t get away with that with inmates.”

Brevard’s Michael Collins does not use a chainsaw or a prison pulpit to spread the word. He prefers a plate and utensils. As executive director of The Bread of Life Free Community Kitchen, he and his all-volunteer staff serve an estimated 180 meals to hungry people in Transylvania County every weekday.

“I am a person who wants to make a difference and participation is how to do that,” says Collins, who ran the downtown Essence of Thyme coffee shop for years until his volunteering at the soup kitchen became a full-time job in 2007. “I do this because I believe we are one human family. Faith is every person and here at the kitchen we get to share something, specifically food, with others every day.”

The kitchen is non-denominational and receives the bulk of its food as donations from local farmers, bakeries, grocers and churches that believe in the mission of providing food for those who need it. “The only question we ask is do you want it for here or to go,” Collins says. “We do have a sanctuary and Bible study available, but those aren’t offered at the same times as the meals because we don’t want to confuse people. No one is required to attend any of the services, but hopefully by coming by and sharing a meal with us they will get a sense of who we are. We like to think we feed people more than just food, but if you are hungry you will certainly get a good meal as well as some more to take home for later.”

Collins’ mission, and that of Bread of Life, does not stop there. The non-profit organization will help those who ask with assistance getting medicine at the free clinic and later this fall will open Transylvania County’s only homeless shelter, The Haven.

“I see a ministry as something bigger than four walls,” he explains. “Food, shelter and access to care are the most Christ-like tenets you can imagine. If my job becomes unnecessary this time next year, I’d be okay with that.”

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