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TN fires: Churches reflect on God’s grace 1 year later

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (BP) — For pastor Kim McCroskey and his congregation, the odyssey appears to be nearly over.

After spending nearly exactly one year in temporary venues, the members of Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg will soon be returning to their original location.

“The light at the end of the tunnel is really bright,” McCroskey said. “We know we are about to come back home.”

Roaring Fork Baptist was destroyed last November — losing its sanctuary and family life center — in the Great Smoky Mountain wildfires that swept through the region. But after a long and steady recovery process, aided by Tennessee Baptist disaster relief teams and Builders for Christ, the church is scheduled to start hosting services on its campus again within the next few weeks.

The recovery at Roaring Fork is a snapshot of the year-long restoration that has taken place all across Gatlinburg and the surrounding areas. The region has steadily begun to reemerge, somewhat literally rising from the ashes, after an estimated 2,400 structures were damaged or destroyed and more than 17,000 acres were burned. Signs of recovery are visible throughout the region.

At Roaring Fork, worship services will soon be held in the church’s new family life center, which is on schedule to be opened before Christmas. The services will then move to the church’s new sanctuary when it is completed a month or two later.

“We’ve had a few things jump up that we weren’t expecting, but we’re in pretty good shape, especially considering that we didn’t start until the middle of May,” McCroskey said. “We’re going to be done, I believe, in the middle of February.”

During the rebuilding process, the Roaring Fork congregation has been meeting for worship at Camp Smoky. The church also held services under a temporary pavilion this summer. All the while, God’s presence was evident.

“It’s been an emotional experience,” McCroskey said. “But we’ve seen people being saved throughout the whole thing — and that’s what has kept me going. We’ve had over 70 people saved since the fire.”

Looking back, looking ahead

The wildfires are considered to be one of the biggest natural disasters in Tennessee history, claiming the lives of 14 people and destroying more than 2,000 homes and buildings. In recent weeks, numerous services and gatherings have been held to honor the victims and to salute the city’s resolve while reflecting on the tragedy that transpired one year earlier.

“The ceremonies brought back a lot of memories,” said Kaye Thomas of First Baptist Church, Sevierville. “In some ways, it seems like a long time ago.”

Thomas and her husband John played a pivotal role during the recovery process, serving as incident commanders in the relief efforts. Working out of a building on the First Baptist campus, the couple coordinated the volunteer teams who came to work in Sevier County.

First Baptist housed and fed the Tennessee Disaster Relief teams and other volunteers for roughly four months. All told, the church hosted more than 2,000 volunteers, representing five states, during the recovery process.

“My husband and I have worked in DR since the 1990s, but this is the first time we’ve worked here in our own community,” Thomas said. “It’s been very different this time in that we didn’t go somewhere and then come back home. The disaster was here, all the time, 24/7. So that’s been very different.”

Robert Nichols, the director of missions for the Sevier County Association, and his team were among the dedicated group of workers who helped the area begin the healing process.

“People were very committed to coming,” Thomas said. “And we cannot begin to express how thankful and appreciative we are. We had numerous teams that came from our neighbors in Nolachucky Baptist Association and Knox County Association of Baptists. They were truly wonderful neighbors in terms of coming to help.”

Banner Baptist Church, located just outside the Gatlinburg city limits, lost its fellowship hall during the fires, and roughly two dozen families from the church saw their homes destroyed. But they, too, have steadily recovered.

“Most of our work has been about concentrating on the families that lost everything, and most of them are back where they need to be, or at least in the process of getting there,” pastor Pete Lamon said.

Tennessee disaster relief teams were instrumental in helping Banner Baptist’s recovery, and the church recently reciprocated by giving $5,000 — which represents about 8 to 10 percent of the church’s budget — to disaster relief to aid the hurricane-ravaged areas of Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

“We decided to give (the donation) to Tennessee Disaster Relief because they helped us tremendously with the work they did for us during the clean-up (after the fires),” Lamon said. “We felt this would be the best place for us to provide resources for them.”

Staying strong

The Gatlinburg area has adopted the slogan “Mountain Tough” to describe the region’s ability to stay strong in the most challenging of circumstances.

The phrase could also be used to describe the Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief teams and volunteers, who have been visible and constant throughout the recovery process.

“Since the fires, 433 projects have been completed by our volunteers,” said Wes Jones, the disaster relief specialist at the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “Everything from debris clean-up to sifting ashes to demolition work and on down the list.”

The rebuilding phase has been a painstaking process for all who were affected by the fires, as communities have dealt with levels of destruction and grief that were unprecedented in the area. But now, much of the recovery — including some of the hardest work — is complete.

“Things are still moving,” Jones said. “We are out of the response phase and nearing the end of the rebuild phase, too.”

The new buildings that are emerging across the region aren’t the only signs of recovery. Emotional healing is taking place, too.

“Yesterday was a beautiful day, and we talked about how it was such a change from last year at this time,” Thomas said, “when you could hardly see because the whole area was so smoky.”

As traumatic as the fires were, God’s presence was felt, and many lives were changed for the better. At Roaring Fork, numerous professions of faith were made in the midst of the chaos and destruction.

“We met all summer in a pavilion that we built, and I started calling it ‘the anointed pavilion’ because we were seeing people saved every week under that pavilion,” McCroskey said. “The first week we started rebuilding, there were people saved and it just continued all summer. I’ve already got people lined up to be baptized in the new church. I am anxiously awaiting getting the baptistery up and going so that we can get some people under the water who have already been under the blood.”

McCroskey said he is thankful to be able to look back and see how God has been at work throughout the past 12 months.

“We have been blessed in so many ways, and I believe God is going to do some big things in Gatlinburg,” McCroskey said. “Save your fork, the best is yet to come.”