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Retired evangelist Bobby Powell, with grandson Dillon Phillips, started his outdoor light display in 1988 and has added to it every year.
Daily photos by John Godbey
Retired evangelist Bobby Powell, with grandson Dillon Phillips, started his outdoor light display in 1988 and has added to it every year.

85,000 strands of lights for Jesus
Bobby Powell’s sprawling display in Athens reflects ‘the real, true meaning of Christmas’

By Danielle Komis· 340-2447

Nestled among dusty cotton fields on a two-lane road in Athens, an oasis of lights shines in the darkness from Thanksgiving until New Year’s Day.

But it’s not just one light — it’s a 16-foot lighted birthday cake for Jesus, a 100-foot three-dimensional Christmas tree, two toy soldiers that guard the driveway, and hundreds more Christmas figures and scenes that nearly bury the modest house they surround on the
1-acre site.

The birth of Christ is joyfully proclaimed through a sound system that constantly plays Christmas music. When the wind is right, music can be heard by neighbors more than a mile away.

The man responsible for the display is Bobby Powell, a retired evangelist and owner of Sonshine Audio in Athens.

The sparkling Christmas tree is made from CDs.
The sparkling Christmas tree is made from CDs.
The display at his residence on Cambridge Lane began with a few strands of lights in 1988. Today, 85,000 strands require five circuit boxes and a 1,200-pound transformer.

“Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” is Powell’s annual theme for his light show. While he
isn’t offended by Santa Claus, he avoids using the jolly man in his displays because he worries Santa distracts from the main event of the season — Jesus’ birth.

“I feel a responsibility to show the real, true meaning of Christmas,” Powell said. Yet, as someone who remembers how he felt when he only “had religion but not salvation,” he doesn’t want to force his beliefs on anyone.

“I’ve really been careful,” he said. “I just want to be available to help folks.”

The people who come back year after year and thank him for showcasing the “true” meaning of Christmas and those who just stop and stare at the lights with tears rolling down their faces motivate 73-year-old Powell to continue his tradition.

Buckling down to work

The work begins in August with light checks and repairs. By November, Powell devotes about 30 hours each week on the project, on top of running his church audio systems business.

He hires someone each year to help him take down and put up the lights, which are stored in a shed the size of a six-car garage.

Powell buys many of his light displays at a Christmas outdoor light and décor store in Sevierville, Tenn., but creates many of the light forms himself with a pipe bender and welding equipment. He tries to add something new to his display each year. This year it’s a string of reindeer that appear to be taking flight.

His favorite gadget in his workshop is a $300 device that identifies a bad light in a string.

A sign from God

Ironically, Powell nearly threw in the towel on his light display in 1992. He said he felt overwhelmed by the tradition that his secretaries started.

But the day he decided he would no longer do it, it seemed the world had a different plan.

When he went into town that day, every store he went into someone recognized him as “the guy who does the Christmas lights,” and asked him if he was going to put the display up again.

It couldn’t just be a coincidence that one person in each of the five stores he visited asked about the lights. It was a sign, Powell said.

“It was just like the Lord was saying, ‘This is something you’re going to do,’ ” he said. “I walked out of the fifth one and thought, ‘Oh, man, I have to do it.’ ”

His efforts are impressive, said longtime neighbor Jo Ann Boruff.

“It’s fascinating to think that he would want to do that and then pull it off and actually do it,” she said “It’s a lot of work and it’s complicated.”

Powell straightens one of the candles that decorate a birthday cake for Jesus.
Powell straightens one of the candles that decorate a birthday cake for Jesus.
Powell admits that each year he feels a
“certain amount of dread” when the season rolls around again. But once he gets into the project, dread vanishes.

He won’t listen to family members who worry that he might get hurt while putting up the display. He’s had some minor accidents, including falling from a 12-foot ladder.

“My wife came running out the door and said, ‘You’re going to give me a heart attack! You’ve got to quit doing this,’ ” he said. Powell said he suffered only a minor scratch.

Christmas lights enthusiasts

People of all ages come from miles around to see his lights, which doesn’t create a traffic problem thanks to a half-circle driveway Powell created years ago specifically for viewing his display.

He began accepting donations a few years ago to help pay his electric bill, which is usually about $2,000 for December.

Boruff said she often hears people at her church talk about Powell’s creation.

“I hear people say they go out of their way to see it and have their kids see it,” she said. “And he just adds to it every year. It’s just wonderful.

If you go:

What: Christmas light display

Where: Residence of Bobby Powell at 12768 Cambridge Lane in Athens

When: Dark until 11 p.m. until New Year’s evening. Donations are accepted.

Directions: From Decatur, drive north on U.S. 31 and turn right onto Huntsville Brownsferry Road. Go about three miles and turn left onto Cambridge Lane. Powell’s display is about a mile away on the right.

From Athens, take U.S. 72 East to Cambridge Lane. Turn right and go one mile south. The display is on the left.

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