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Wilma destroys church’s sanctuary, but not its hope

BOYNTON BEACH, Fla. (BP)–A bag of used clothes left by the church’s front door after Hurricane Wilma roared through Florida reminded Pastor Dennis Demarois of the community’s love for the church.

The entire sanctuary of Westside Baptist Church in Boynton Beach was submerged under three feet of water Oct. 24, while the upstairs balcony turned into a swimming pool, Demarois told the Florida Baptist Witness. Outside, huge slats of wood studded with shingles and long nails were ripped off the roof when 125 mph winds slammed the southwest corner of the 15-year-old 8,000-square-foot sanctuary.

Demarois said he found the plastic bag of clothes at the front door.

“Look at the clothing — isn’t that great,” Demarois told church members who stopped by to check on the church. “It says a lot about our church.”

Inside the fellowship hall — a 6,500-square foot metal structure the congregation previously used as a worship center — Demarois pointed to the dry carpet and solid walls.

“It’s amazing,” Demarois told Bill Koppelman, a deacon and chairman of the trustee committee at Westside. Koppelman was touring the facility with his wife, Margaret.

Koppelman, president of a 392-unit condominium community just blocks away, said the retirees there were still without power and grappling with trying to remove trees and clean up debris left in the hurricane’s wake.

Even after feeling the effects of Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne last year and Katrina this year, Koppelman said Wilma was the “worst one” he had gone through. Still, “having faith helps,” he said — in addition to knowing Southern Baptists were on hand nearby to assist.

“Without faith you wouldn’t make it through a situation like this,” Koppelman said. “I worry about everyone, not just the properties.”

Inside the sanctuary, Demarois showed Koppelman the rain-soaked pews and a sagging baby grand piano that had been full of water. “I could have baptized in here on Tuesday,” he quipped.

Demarois was called to the church two and a half years ago. With an average attendance of 40, the church has regained strength and grown to over 210 active members. This past year Demarois said he baptized 60 into the membership of the church, with 40 of those being first time believers.

The church has become reflective of the diverse working-class and retirement community located about 40 miles north of Miami, Demarois said, with weekly worship services in both Spanish and English and each providing translation as well.

A monthly service unites the two language groups and allows the pastor and deacons to practice the ordinances of the church together. “I believe heaven’s going to be that way,” Demarois said.

Just a few weeks ago, the church observed its 27th anniversary, celebrating, among other things, the completion of a new roof nearly six months ago.

Anticipating the church’s sanctuary to be a complete loss — since water has soaked the inside walls, the entire contents of the facility and the roof — Demarois said he isn’t quite sure what is going to happen, but is optimistic about the future.

“It’s exciting because God’s got a different plan for us,” Demarois said, smiling. “I don’t know how this fits into it, but it does.”

Despite the church’s loss, Demarois said he is thankful there were no injuries or loss of life in his congregation.

“I was encouraged that the church members would give glory to God even though their neighborhoods were destroyed,” Demarois said. “God does help.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan, Florida Baptist Witness