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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, January 1, 2009

2008 in Knox: A year of loss and redemption for Francis family

By Zach Simeone

KNOX — For one family in Knox, the year 2008 was one of both loss and redemption.

Jonathan Francis had been arrested and jailed; his father, Pastor Jay Francis, mourned both his son’s arrest and the burning of his Rock Road Church.

Laid low by a stroke at 35, the world seemed an unfair place to Jonathan Francis. “I threw caution to the wind, more or less,” Francis said of his attitude after the stroke.  “It culminated in this event.”

On Saturday, May 8, 2007, dozens of police officers armed with shotguns barricaded Lewis Road after Francis, depressed and drunk, called a suicide hotline.

He was 38 then and had been arrested several times, including for assault of his wife.  The blockade ended without gunfire.  Francis came out with his hands above his head.  Police found only two BB guns in the house.

His last drink “was the morning of that incident,” Francis said recently.

Following his arrest, Francis spent a couple of months in jail.

“You start to think,” he said of his time there.  “That’s really what woke me up — spending time in jail.”

His father said at the time of the arrest, “I can’t justify his actions, yet I can say that Saturday doesn’t define who he is.”

He was a good kid, Rev. Francis said, and people can redeem themselves.  “Forgiveness can be instant,” he said.  “It takes a while to build up trust.”

The father’s loss

A church isn’t just a building. This is the message Jay Francis was spreading July after the Rock Road Chapel in Knox, a church he founded decades ago, was engulfed in flames in late June.  He received between 60 and 70 phone calls a day after the chapel burned, and churches in the area offered him their sanctuaries to hold services.

“Emotionally, it was a draining day, but, you know, the church is not the building.  It’s the people.  So we’ve got to go on,” said Francis after the fire.  “In the Capital District and all the Hilltowns, people are very supportive…saying, ‘You should build again and we need you’ and all those types of things.  So we were real appreciative of nine fire companies fighting the fire, and, even during that, people were saying they felt bad for it and want to see it restored or rebuilt.” 

The destruction caused by the fire and water was extensive.  Windows were broken.  Mud caked the floors.  Electrical wiring drooped lazily from the walls and ceilings.  Insulation was strewn throughout the building.  Among the ruins: keyboards, computers, chairs, movies, training videos, pianos, guitars, sound systems, hymnals, Bibles, and reference books. 

Francis, who became a Christian when he was 17, started the church as a Bible study in a house in 1965; the Rock Road Chapel was built in 1979. 

A few days after the fire, Francis was on the second floor of the church, in what had been the youth room, sifting through old books, now soaked and burned, with his brother, Wally.  They were performing an inventory and assessing the damage for the church’s insurance company, salvaging what they could.  They were industrious and resilient, showing no signs of defeat, sadness, or fatigue as they picked through the rubble.

On the morning of Saturday, June 28, as many residents in this rural community were preparing to drive to Albany for Berne-Knox-Westerlo’s graduation ceremony, the fire started. Firefighters from multiple agencies fought the fire throughout the day.  The call came in at about 8:45 a.m.

“It was pretty progressive when we received the call in,” said Holly Clark, chief of the Berne Volunteer Fire Company, after the fire.

“It was already very hot when we arrived at the scene so we could not put anybody inside for quite some time until we could get it cooled down,” she said. 

Clark outlined conditions at the scene and the difficulties firefighters faced.

“Because of the building being metal construction, it just held the heat in,” she said.  And, Clark said, a ladder truck was called to the scene because the firefighters could not enter the building.

“And, of course, being that this was a warm, muggy day, we had to have [rehabilitation support services] in for the firefighters — and that took a lot longer — because people were just getting overwhelmed due to the heat,” she said.

 “Everything was against us from the go,” said Clark.  “There was also a breeze.  That doesn’t help.”

Departments that provided mutual aid returned to their quarters around 3:30 to 4 p.m. that afternoon.  The Berne Fire District stayed on the scene until 8:30 p.m. with investigators.

“I’d like to see something that looks better and is more adequate and more up-to-date than this was so that we can minister to the people more effectively,” Francis said. 

The Rock Road Chapel ministers to more than 100 people. 

“We’d like to rebuild even though we don’t have enough insurance,” he said.  “That’s why we’re going to do a lot ourselves.  We’d like to rebuild without a mortgage because, with today’s economy, I don’t want a little church to take on a mortgage.”

The day after the fire, Francis preached next door, from the basement of International Accelerated Ministries’ Mission House, the chapel’s sister church. 

His message: Keep bearing fruit.  Press on.

“Jerusalem was in destruction and Nehemiah prayed, wept, spoke to the people, and the people said, ‘We will arise and build,’” said Francis.  “We’ve got to pray and weep and then get up and work.”

The son redeemed

A former lawyer, whose license to practice has been suspended, Jonathan Francis now has a new perspective on the criminal justice system.

Of his gut reaction to his incarceration, Francis said in December, “It’s a slap in the face to be on the other side of it.”  His time in prison was humbling, he said, and forced him to recognize his addictions to drugs and alcohol.

When he opens his law office again in a few years, after petitioning the court to be reinstated, “I can really be empathetic,” he said.  “I’ll be able to say, ‘I’ve been there.’”

Getting to that point, admitting his failures and problems, has been difficult.  “Addiction is the hardest thing in the world to get over,” he said.  Francis had tried several rehab programs before without success and, in the end, had to come to terms with being a man no better than any other.

“I’m a big shot.  I’m a lawyer,” he said, boiling down the ego that he had stumbled on.  “I’m a failed human being… It was in rehab I learned that,” he said, concluding that now, “I do not look down my nose at people.”

In the five years that he was cycling through rehab, Francis’s wife, Sherry, said the hardest part was watching their three sons wonder what was wrong.

“Drugs and alcohol turned him into someone else,” Sherry Francis said in December.

“Drugs and alcohol are an anesthetic that make you feel good… [It] feels good for a minute,” Jonathan Francis said.

What he missed most during his time in jail, Francis said, was his family.  “I want to tuck my kids in at night,” he said.

The children wrote cards and letters and sent pictures while he was away, Sherry Francis said, “and he wrote back always.”

“Our family is back together,” Francis said.  “It seems normal again,” his wife said.  “He seems happy.”

— Original reporting on Jonathan Francis’s arrest and recovery by Saranac Hale Spencer. Original reporting on the Rock Road Chapel fire by Tyler Schuling.

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