CENTREVILLE, Ala. (BP)–A little more than a day after a series of fires gutted three Baptist churches and damaged two others in Bibb County, Ala., the smell of burning embers still was in the air.
Hope and optimism were in the air as well, which didn’t surprise Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch as he paid a visit to the area Feb. 4.
“The joy that we have in all of this is that we know how this is going to end,” Welch said as he surveyed the charred remains of Rehobeth Baptist Church.
“All these churches are going to come back,” said Welch, an Alabama native and pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“People are going to sing again. They’re going to be happy again. Souls are going to be saved again in these churches. This place will be stronger because of what has come against them, and because of the fire of the Holy Spirit of God getting ahold of their lives.”
Welch accompanied Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, and Steve Patrick, director of missions of the Bibb Baptist Association, in spending several hours Saturday at the sites of all five churches affected by the fires and praying with each pastor. While in the area, the men joined Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a Baptist himself, who also visited each church.
Riley likewise was encouraged by the resilient spirit he encountered. “The buildings will be rebuilt. A pastor told me this morning, ‘People try to destroy God’s buildings, but you can’t destroy the church,’” the governor said. “If you don’t believe that, come down here and talk to the members of each one of these churches. They’re stronger, they’re more dedicated today than they’ve ever been.”
As proof of that, all five churches gathered for worship on Sunday. Old Union and Antioch were relatively undamaged and held worship services in their sanctuaries. Members of Rehobeth gathered in their fellowship hall, a separate building which didn’t burn. Ashby members met at another nearby church, while Pleasant Sabine worshipped in a building provided by a member.
Later that afternoon, Lance returned to Bibb County to join Patrick in personally delivering checks to the pastors of the four Bibb Association Baptist churches, as well as Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church which is not part of the association, to assist with rebuilding. The checks were written out of the Alabama Baptist General Disaster Relief fund, made possible by the giving of Alabama Baptists. It was an act of generosity which moved both pastors and church members.
“That is really a tremendous support because we sometimes think when we’re in a situation like this we’re all alone. This really reminds us we’re not alone by any means,” said Duane Schliep, pastor of Rehobeth Baptist Church, which was totally destroyed. “We see that other churches are holding us up, and all the churches which are damaged. That is sustaining us tremendously.”
Lance also pledged the use of three mobile chapels, provided by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions for Rehobeth and Ashby churches to use for worship and education space.
While presenting the checks, Lance reminded those present that “while this is a tangible expression of love, that’s not all there is, because prayer support is the most important thing.”
Welch, earlier in the day, had noted that the support of fellow Baptists “is one of the clearest examples imaginable of how important it is to be a part of a larger family and a larger network. It just goes to prove again -– what we say over and over –- how much more we can all do when we do it together.
“That’s precisely what the Cooperative Program is all about,” Welch said, referencing Southern Baptists’ unified channel for supporting missions and ministries in each state and across the nation and world.
Ashby Baptist Church experienced an extra blessing Sunday with the addition of three new members. “What an encouragement to have three new members and not even a building to meet in,” pastor Jim Parker remarked, “but that’s what the church is, isn’t it? It’s the people.”
Kevin Quinley and Tiffany Hogge, a young couple engaged to be married, were among the new members. Why go ahead and join? “The church didn’t get burned. It was a building, not the church,” said Quinley, a firefighter who helped battle the blaze at Ashby. “The congregation is still strong. We’ll be here to help them rebuild it. We weren’t a part of it before, but we will be now.”
The fires also are opening doors for the churches in their communities. Rehobeth member Edith Wilson told of her husband talking to a couple who had never been to their church before, and sensing that they indeed will visit the church. David Hand, pastor of Old Union Baptist Church which suffered minor damage to the pulpit area, remarked, “This is a time when we can all pull together. This is a time when He can get the glory. It’s an opportunity to really lift up our Christianity.”
Doug Rogers is communications coordinator for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.