On Monday, a look through the open back doors of the Union Chapel Free Will Baptist Church revealed a rear foyer and a second entrance-way that used to open into the sanctuary, now framing only trees, sky and a burned-out expanse of ashen rubble, remnants of a devastating may 25 fire.
Today, two weeks after that fire, church leaders expect the rubble to begin being cleared away and what little still stands of the building to be demolished, as the church focuses on its future in the short-term and beyond.
The hilltop church building that overlooked the Erwin Highway burned in a fast-moving blaze that left the congregation and community stunned and forced the people of Union Chapel FWB to shift church activities to the smaller fellowship building on the rear of the church grounds. The cause of the fire remains officially unconfirmed, but is believed to have been electrical.
Meanwhile, church leaders and members are working to bring the fellowship/recreation building into better shape to double as a church house, sectioning off new Sunday School classrooms and also seeing a sharpening of spirit and Christian dedication within the church body.
If the fire was a blow to the face, the church rolled with that punch and already is turning its attention to the future.
“You should have seen that first Sunday service after the fire!” Rachel Young, church secretary, said Monday morning in the fellowship building. Worshipers gathered in the fellowship building and gave praise and thanks to God as always, maybe even more vigorously than ever.
Zak Neas, one of the church’s trustees, said Monday that the church has seen three people make professions of faith in Christ, and at least one make a public Christian re-dedication. The church’s longtime building may be gone, but the church itself goes on.
Small as it may appear in comparison to the building that burned, the fellowship building is sufficiently large to accommodate the numbers of people who typically attend, Young said. Sixty-one people attended the church’s first prayer meeting after the fire.
Neas, whose father, Lynn Neas, has been the pastor of Union Chapel for 36 years, has had time to reflect on the fire itself, particularly the narrow escape of some of the firefighters who barely got out of the building before the roof collapsed heavily into the sanctuary. Had the timing been only slightly different, or the firefighters only a few feet from where they were when the ceiling began to give way, there probably would have been fatalities, Neas believes. As it was, nobody was hurt.
The tall front wall of the church building, adorned with a large cross emblem, survived the fire, but the teetering, fire-weakened wall had to be knocked down immediately as a safety precaution, Neas said.
Neas, a former Greene County commissioner, also said that work going on at the nearby Erwin Highway bridge slowed the arrival of some of the firefighters. Numerous volunteer fire departments worked together in fighting the blaze.
Public response to the tragic event has warmed the hearts of the church members, Neas and Young said. Other Free Will Baptist congregations, in-state and out, have given support to Union Chapel, along with other churches, groups and individuals.
It is too early yet for the church to know exactly how and when it will rebuild a permanent sanctuary, Neas said, but it is likely that whatever building is created will be designed to be more accommodating to older church members who sometimes were challenged physically by multiple levels and stairs within the original building.
Neas expects that the church will look at options for an entirely new building, or perhaps a building incorporating or adding to the fellowship building now subbing as a church house.
Working cheerfully to help section out classroom spaces within the fellowship building Monday was John Mathis, who attends Union Chapel Church and is one of several congregants who are giving their help as the church forges ahead.
Meanwhile, a rumpled framed poster sitting at the front of the temporary worship center succinctly presents advice Union Chapel FWB and its friends are trying to follow just now: PRAY HARD.