A couple stands underneath the clock tower on the north side of the historic DeSoto County Courthouse.

Reverend Larry Bell holds an open Bible and asks the young couple if they wish to commit to a life of loving and supporting one another.

It's a scene that is reminiscent of the days when Hernando was known as the "Marriage Capital of the World," for its quickie marriages performed in the days when there was no waiting period.

Bell estimates that he has married more than 500 couples in the 54 years he has been a pastor and he has added to that number since arriving in DeSoto County more than a decade ago.

Bell, a native of Millinocket, Maine, a small New England town of 3,900, is a former bailiff for the DeSoto County Sheriff's Department and worked for DeSoto County Court Judge Allen Couch as a trial bailiff.

As the DeSoto County Courthouse's unofficial wedding pastor, Bell's ministry is aimed at helping couples and families stay together and committed to one another.

Bell's philosophy differs from wedding chapel pastors where hastily-arranged marriages" were the order of the day.

Times have changed, and Bell now counsels against so-called "quickie marriages."

Couples should think twice about about saying "I do" before they actually tie the knot, according to Bell.

"Before I sign the papers, I sit down and talk with them," said Bell. "In the society we're living in, I talk to them about responsibility, especially if it's a second marriage and they have two or three children between them. The situation we're in today is that society puts such little value on marriage or life for that matter. It's sad."

Bell said he gained a newfound zeal for life after a near-fatal heart attack in 2002 left him clinically dead. Bell literally came back to life.

"In 2002, I had a heart attack at the parsonage," Bell said. "I walked up the stairs and told my wife that I was having a heart attack."

Bell was given Novocain under the tongue that kept him alive but he "coded" shortly thereafter.

"I was paddled back to life," Bell said of defibrillators that were applied to his chest. "I was paddled so much I was left with burns."

Bell vividly recalls his afterlife experience.

"It was such a beautiful peace," Bell said. "I didn't want to come back. I saw the most beautiful light. God showed me in my heavenly robe with the long black hair that I used to have."

Bell adds with a twinkle in his eye that his wife Virginia and daughters Juanita and Michelle along with the 500 couples he has married during his ministry are glad the good Lord let him stay around.

"My message is simple — we need God's help to make our marriages and lives successful," Bell said.

Robert Lee Long is Community Editor for the DeSoto Times-Tribune. He may be contacted at rlong@desototimestribune.com or at 662-429-6397, Ext. 252.

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