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Austin and Angi White of Ripley help stencil letters on their float in the Athens Christmas parade. The community has won the parade's float decorating contest for two years straight.
DAILY photo by Jonathan Palmer
Austin and Angi White of Ripley help stencil letters on their float in the Athens Christmas parade. The community has won the parade's float decorating contest for two years straight.

Parade makers
Struggle to read Bible leads to Christmas float mission

By Holly Hollman· 340-2445

ATHENS — A magical train will weave its way through downtown Athens tonight.

But the story behind two of its train cars is much more enchanting.

It’s a holiday story worth sharing before tonight’s annual Reliance Bank Christmas Parade. The parade’s theme is “The Christmas Express,” and parade entrants are to resemble a long train.

The Friends in Ripley entry should catch the eye. The group created two train cars on a hay wagon for its “Mrs. Claus’ Marshmallow Express.” Mrs. Claus will cook in the kitchen car, and elves will serve marshmallow treats to those in the adjoining dining car.

But it’s the story behind this entry’s creation that will catch the heart.

Jump the track for a moment and learn about a Ripley farmer who hated to read the Bible.

Ed Black struggled to understand the King James version. When Black learned in 2003 that he had a brain tumor, reading through the Bible before his death was his goal. An elder at Mount Carmel Church of Christ suggested Black read the New Century version.

Black was so impressed with the plain English version that he bought Bibles to give away, sometimes writing a check for $500 for a box.

Without fanfare, Black distributed Bibles to strangers, friends and children. He would say, “If you already have one, give it to someone who doesn’t.”

Don’t pull the brakes. This reading trip does connect from Bibles to floats.

By the 2004 holiday season, Black’s health had deteriorated. His family and the Ripley community in southwestern Limestone County were glum and needed a distraction.

Black’s wife, Gayle, signed up her son and nephew for an entry in the Christmas parade. As Ed Black completed the Old and New Testament, his son Shane and nephew John Andy King worked on a float in his shop at The Drop Farm.

The community pitched in, and the float, a house with Santa on the roof, won the $1,000 grand prize.

Keep chugging along, and this story may cause a tear and a smile.

The next spring, Ed Black died. The grief-stricken family and community forgot about the prize money. They were missing the man who ate ice cream from the container, went by the nickname “Fast Eddy” and slipped a Bible to folks who bought hay from him.

Hop onto the train car, this story’s back on track.

Ed Black’s family and friends remembered his one-man mission work and decided the prize money would buy Bibles for them to distribute in his memory.

That led to the creation of The Friends in Ripley, a group that has won the parade’s grand prize the past two years.

Gayle Black said if the group does not win their third this year, the fellowship is worth it. In mid-November, they ate at Catfish Inn and discussed ideas. Shane Black and his wife, Trisha, said their children were more excited about finding out what the float would be than putting up a Christmas tree.

With the train theme and the marshmallow idea, they gathered in Ed Black’s shop on nights and weekends and hammered, sawed, stapled and painted. Help came from folks like J.C. Batts, who is in law school in Birmingham but grew up in Ripley and came back to help.

And Ed Black’s mission has continued.

Black’s sister, Myra King, keeps Bibles in her car. Inside the Bibles are stamped Ed Black’s words, “If you already have one, give it to someone who doesn’t.”

King has lost count of how many she has distributed. A couple of months ago, she broke a personal rule and picked up a hitchhiker in the Ripley community.

“I saw a little lady walking on the road out here, and she was alone,” King said. “She was on her way to Athens. I gave her a ride. When I dropped her off, I said, ‘Wait. I’ve got something for you.’ Then I thought, ‘Maybe she thinks I mean money.’ But that’s not what I wanted to give her. I gave her a Bible. She grabbed me and bear hugged me. She said the only Bible she had ever had was in jail. I haven’t seen her since, but maybe I planted the seed, or the seed was already planted, and I added the water. We know God will add the increase.”

King paused in her story as she stuffed white lights into the clouds that will float atop the Marshmallow Express entry tonight.

“You know, she might have been an angel unawares, like the Bible talks about,” King said. “I just pray God says to me one day, ‘Well done.’ And I’ll be with Ed again, and all the family.”

When “Mrs. Claus’ Marshmallow Express” rolls by tonight, parade watchers will notice many details: an ingredient bag for “Magic Cornstarch,” supply boxes from the North Pole Shipping Co. and a 100 health rating.

They can look for Ed Black too, because he is there. His picture hangs on the dining car wall, a reminder of what one man’s influence can accomplish.

Athens on parade

  • Reliance Bank Christmas Parade in Athens begins at 6 tonight at Athens High School.

  • Parade will go down Hobbs Street to the square and down Jefferson Street to Hometown Grocery.

  • Theme is "The Christmas Express."

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