DAMON, Texas (BP) – The Sunday before Thanksgiving, Darrin George preached on Psalm 100:4 at Hilltop Fellowship Church, emphasizing gratitude. He added an illustration from James 1: “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials” (1:2).
Little did the pastor know that the trial had already come.
“God wants your thanks, even in the middle of the fire,” George told the congregation of around 50.
Later in the sermon, he looked up to see his wife, Ami, standing at the rear of the church, an unusual occurrence because she was taking care of the church’s children back there. She motioned calmly. Pausing his message, George stepped down from the pulpit and walked toward Ami, who delivered the news: “The house is on fire.”
“Yes, our house is on fire.”
George recalled dropping his jacket, folding his glasses and telling the congregation what was happening while heading out the door to see what could be saved at the home, which sat on family land a two-minute drive from the church.
The congregation soon followed.
One of the couple’s three adult sons had been in the house when the fire broke out and called 911 after getting out safely. He had also called Ami.
By the time volunteer firefighters and the Georges arrived, the 1,800-square-foot structure was ablaze. Darrin, a former volunteer fireman, grabbed one of the two hoses from the tanker truck and began drenching the flames.
Members of the congregation helped as they could, passing out water bottles to first responders, praying. Little could be done. The house was unsalvageable.
Treasure amid the ruins
Fire inspectors determined that the blaze had started from a faulty electrical receptacle in the wall behind the living room couch, the same sofa where Darrin had slept the night before as he and Ami “camped out” in the living room with their grandchildren, a Saturday night custom.
Had the fire started only a few hours earlier, he might have been engulfed in flames as the sofa ignited. The home was a disaster, but things could have been worse.
“We might never have awakened,” George said.
The television set once nestled in the entertainment center completely melted, leaving only a metal wall frame and bracket. George recalled standing at a window, soaking the bookshelves and entertainment center with water from the firehose.
When it became safe to start sifting through the rubble, the Georges found that very few things had survived the fire, smoke and water. Yet treasures lay amid the charred debris.
“We were able to salvage our photos. They were in a tote from the last hurricane,” George said. He added that they also located some keepsakes, including a letter he had written Ami when they were teens, but were still searching for her original wedding ring that must be “in here somewhere.”
Most miraculous of all, four Bibles that had been sitting on the entertainment center, the very shelves that George had blasted with water, were recovered intact, spotted by a lady from the church. All escaped harm, as did a devotional book that had belonged to his mother.
“They were unburned and not even water damaged,” said George, calling it an “unbelievable miracle of God.”
George said he and his late grandmother, an important spiritual figure in his life, had read together often from her Bible, especially during his frequent, lengthy bouts of childhood illness when she cared for him while his mom worked. He likewise treasured the Bible and devotional book that had belonged to his mother, also now deceased. The Georges’ family Bible was among those spared, as was his childhood Bible.
Amid the loss, finding the Bibles was a tangible reminder of God’s love and care.
And the fire proved to be “a continuation” of George’s sermon and an unexpected “object lesson” that is already impacting the Damon community.
Help arrives quickly
The couple lost everything. House insurance had been cut from the family budget following a reduction in the bivocational pastor’s income when he was laid off from his sales job. He now works as a construction contractor in addition to being a pastor.
“The house was paid for. We cut loose of insurance when money got tight,” George said.
They are starting the rebuild practically from zero.
But help came quickly and is continuing.
The Gulf Coast Baptist Association presented the Georges with a generous check to help with immediate needs. Church members are bringing meals, helping sift through the rubble and assisting in preparing the ruined structure for demolition.
The couple’s middle son parked his RV on the family’s acreage so his parents would have a place to stay. Their son Aaron started a GoFundMe page to help. A larger fundraiser, with barbecue dinner and silent auction, is scheduled for Jan. 8 at McClean Park Pavilion in Lake Jackson. A pastor friend, age 81, is planning a benefit concert.
Southern Baptists of Texas Convention field representative Mitch Kolenovsky connected George with Jeff Lynn, SBTC senior strategist for church health and leadership, who sent both condolences and paperwork for an SBTC grant to help the rebuild.
Help has come from unexpected sources, too. Ami has lived in Damon all her life; Darrin came as a teenager. A couple long known to the Georges paid a visit the day after the fire.
“We’re not church-going people,” the man said. “We are praying and hoping that one day we will be. You guys do so much good in the community. If you were to rebuild, how much would you need?”
George suggested an amount to construct a modest 1,100-square-foot home with room for the couple and an extra bedroom for grandkids. The cost included his doing much of the work himself.
The couple presented the Georges with a significant check, enough to lay a new slab and dry it in, the pastor said, adding, “People have been so generous.”
“Many donations have come from all over, anonymous gifts of $20 to $1,000 from people we will never know. But God knows,” George said, adding that even the Verizon sales representative donated $200 to the GoFundMe account when the pastor was in the store seeing about a replacement for his son’s burnt cell phone.
Rebuilding a way of life
The Georges are no strangers to rebuilding. When Darrin assumed his current pulpit in October 2019, the church had gone through ups and downs, changing names and pastors frequently. It was a mission of New Shores Baptist in Sweeney, known as the New Shores Damon campus, when George was called.
In April 2021, the church launched on its own. The name was changed to Hilltop Fellowship, a reference to its location atop a large natural mound in the community of around 1,000, including surrounding farms and ranches as well as Damon, a town of about 400 an hour southwest of Houston.
Right now, in what remains of their home, the Georges are busy “tearing down what’s left and getting ready to build for the future,” the pastor said. Days are tough, the loss still raw and new. But hope as symbolized by the recovered Bibles is real.
“We’ve got clothes. We’ve got food. We’ve got what we need,” George said, “and we have seen God’s hand. Most definitely.”