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19 volunteers help church push beyond arson’s heartbreak


DANCY, Ala. (BP)—-Joe Simmons said the initial news of the fire at his church in the early morning hours of Feb. 7 was “devastating.”

“At first, I wondered, ‘What are we going to do to get it back together?’ It really hit me like a bomb,” said Simmons, who has attended First Baptist Church in Dancy, Ala., all of his 67 years. “But I know now we can work it out with help.”

Help arrived Feb. 24 in the form of 19 men from three Alabama Baptist churches —- Eastside Baptist in Birmingham; Ridgecrest Baptist in Montgomery; and Santuck Baptist in Wetumpka. The team spent a little more than 10 hours that day and the next stripping out burned drywall and insulation from the church’s sanctuary, one of the first Alabama church arson sites cleared by investigators for cleanup. Authorities have arrested three collegians for setting fires at Dancy and eight other sites in early February.

Walter Hawkins Jr., pastor of First Baptist, described the 19 volunteers’ help as “amazing.”

“They went in, worked religiously and got it taken care of,” he said. The church has since been meeting in a local funeral home chapel. The members’ spirits are high, Hawkins said, though they are ready to be back in their own space.

“We are holding it together pretty steady; we just have to be patient until He sees fit for us to be back home,” the pastor said.

Volunteer team leader Ray Acton, a member of Eastside, said he hopes that will be very soon.

“It [the sanctuary] is clean, down to the framework,” Acton said, adding that volunteers are on standby to hang the new drywall once the gutted building’s wiring is checked by an electrician. “It’s going to be like starting a new job, and we’re going to try to get it back better than it was before,”

Through the cooperation between Alabama Baptists and the church fire victims, Gary Farley, director of missions for Pickens Baptist Association, said God has taken something bad and made something good out of it.

Every Monday since the four Feb. 7 church fires, Farley has met with pastors and laymen from the fire-damaged churches at Jack’s in Aliceville in what they have dubbed the Burned Churches Response Group.

All of the churches burned in Farley’s area are predominantly black and not affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention, so he has welcomed the chance to communicate and bond with a group of Baptists he wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to know.

“It’s interesting in these Monday meetings, relations were somewhat formal initially but are now open, loving relationships,” Farley said. “Whatever ice was there to begin with has melted away.”

The group prays together and shares testimony of how they’ve been faring.

“One of the pastors shared how a Baptist church had called them wanting to partner with them, and he told them to call one of the other churches because they needed the help worse than his church did,” Farley said. “It touched me deeply to see how even in his time of difficulty, he was reaching out to help a brother hurting worse than he was.”

Farley said he’s also been touched by being able to witness closely the outpouring of help to these churches from Alabama Baptists. At the Monday meetings, he’s able to share offer upon offer from churches making available all sorts of help to the fire victims.

And Farley has been able to watch as Galilee Baptist Church near Panola prepares its site to receive the first mobile chapel ever loaned by the Alabama State Board of Missions to a non-state convention church.

“I am proud to be an Alabama Baptist because of the way the state convention has responded,” he said. “We have all felt really blessed by cooperating together and using the resources the state board has made available.”

In Bibb Baptist Association, the four churches that suffered fire damage Feb. 3 also are moving forward with help from Alabama Baptists, with Rehobeth Baptist Church in Randolph continuing to hold Sunday School in its mobile chapel and Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield still preparing its two mobile chapels for services.
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Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org.