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Beachfront church, flattened by Hurricane Ivan, to rise anew

ORANGE BEACH, Ala. (BP)–Pastor Paul Smith never dreamed the beachfront church he helped begin and later saw splintered and flattened by Hurricane Ivan sat on land that would one day sell for millions of dollars.

Romar Beach Baptist Church in Orange Beach, Ala., now has concrete plans to rebuild on new property thanks to a contract to sell its old site for $14 million.

“Before Ivan, our property was worth $3 million,” Smith said. “We never could have afforded to buy new property or build this new church if it hadn’t been for the hurricane.” Not to mention that, before Ivan, they had no intention of selling the ultra-visible spot they had only paid $550,000 for eight years ago.

In the wake of the Sept. 16, 2004, hurricane, the church drew up plans to rebuild a $2.5 million new structure on the original site, stepping out in faith that God would provide the funds. “We were determined not to relocate, because we felt we needed to keep our presence on the beach,” Smith said.

That was until mega-size condominium developers also began their rebuilding strategy — bigger and better than before. Realty-hungry builders snatched up the empty lots where a multitude of single-family residences were wiped out by the storm.

And while the lot where the church’s former building — a beach house converted to a 200-capacity auditorium — dwindled in visibility against the more-than-30-story condos in the works, its primo property skyrocketed in value. “The offers started at $6 million, then $12.5 million, then $13 million,” Smith said. “They would offer, offer, offer, and our reply would be ‘no, no, no.’ We didn’t want to move.”

The congregation continued to meet in a mobile chapel provided by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, all the while praying for the money to build a new church building — a four-story structure with a working lighthouse on the front.

“Our motto is ‘God’s Lighthouse on the Beach,’ and we wanted our new building to reflect that,” Smith said of the 28,000-square-foot sanctuary envisioned in blueprint form. “We knew it would take a miracle of God for us to be able to afford to build that.”

Over time and through rising offers, Smith said he began to feel as if he might be stubbornly refusing the lifeline God repeatedly was tossing his way. The congregation prayed fervently. Meanwhile, the owners of the property surrounding the church raised the offer to $14 million.

“He wanted to build a 31-story condo on his land, and he needed our property to have the room and clearance to do so,” Smith said. “After talking about it and praying about it, we decided to accept his offer, contingent on our finding suitable and affordable replacement property.”

They did — about 900 feet away from the present church.

It’s choice property, still beachfront, with even better visibility than before.

“It is at least as good, if not better, property for our specific need,” Smith said. “I never thought I would sell that piece of land, but we asked for help and God answered. I don’t know why we are so shocked.”

And after the sale of its land and the purchase of the new, the profit the church made is nearly the exact amount needed to construct the new building. “God works in mysterious ways,” Smith said. “Even with something as devastating as a hurricane, He can work good out of it.”
Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, newsjournal of the Alabama Baptist State Convention, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org. Sue Ann Miller contributed to this article.