Texas church regroups after historic sanctuary burns

| January 24, 2010

TEMPLE, Texas (ABP) — In the days following the Jan. 19 fire that destroyed the historic sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Temple, Texas, many things are still uncertain. But members insist some things are rock-solid sure — God is in control, he loves his people and there is power in prayer.

A team from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was called in to investigate the source of the fire, Pastor Martin Knox said. However, he added, that was not due to any overt evidence of arson.

“The reason the ATF has been called in is because with a fire of this size, they have resources our local fire department doesn’t. Our fire chief has developed a good relationship with those folks, and it was an excellent opportunity to take advantage of that,” Knox said.

One piece of equipment the ATF brought in will reach over the external walls that survived the fire. It will scoop out debris to give investigators a better look at the interior of the building as they seek to find the cause.

While the equipment will reach over the sanctuary walls, most of which remain standing, Knox said he does not believe they can be saved for rebuilding the sanctuary. “There’s no steel in them,” he said of the building, constructed in 1939 after another fire destroyed an 1890s-vintage sanctuary in 1938.

The fire destroyed the sanctuary and an adjoining building that contained the church’s offices, music rooms and some of the church’s classrooms. In addition, all of the other church buildings connected to the sanctuary suffered smoke and water damage. This has necessitated closing the church’s weekday early-education program until the building has been refurbished.

Among the irreplaceable items lost in the blaze is the sanctuary's 2,675-pipe organ.

The only building not touched by the fire and related damage was the church’s youth building. It is located on a corner of the property and was not connected to the other buildings. It currently is being used as makeshift office space until other office space can be secured.

The church — which normally has three Sunday-morning services — will instead hold a single joint service Jan. 24. Current plans for future Sundays are for an 8 a.m. and two simultaneous 11 a.m. services — a contemporary service in the youth building and a traditional service at First United Methodist Church.

Outpouring of support

“The community has been just great in opening up to us and in helping in any way they can,” Knox said. The Episcopal church across the street has provided space for First Baptist staff meetings.

Many others have called from around the state and even from other parts of the country to lend solace, Knox said.

“We’ve received great support,” he said. “With many of the pastors the typical call is: ‘How you doing? Are you OK? What happened to your library?’”

Two pastors who have experienced fires in their own churches have called, Knox said.

“One of them said: ‘You’re going to make it through this. It may not seem like it today, but you will and you’re going to be stronger for it,’” he recalled.

But despite the support, the pastor said, the fire is still difficult for the congregation to handle.

“It’s been emotional for many,” Knox said. “For many, this was a place where their very precious memories occurred — baptisms, weddings, funerals — and besides that, where they met to worship God each Sunday.”

Johnell Ellison and Bill Hart both were baptized in the building that burned in 1938, and said this building was just as meaningful.

“It’s upsetting,” Ellison said through tears. “When I go to church on Sunday to teach my 4-year-olds on Sunday, we don’t have any place to be.”
Ellison, who also serves as the congregation's historian, said some of the church’s photo gallery was saved, but she doesn’t know the state of other artifacts because she has not been allowed back into the building.

“We’ve lost so much of our history,” she said, “but we haven’t lost our spirit. We’ve got a good preacher and a good staff, and I’ve been praying for them today. We have a loving church and all together, we’ll get through this.”

“It was the church I was baptized in, and it was hard to see it go,” Ellison said of the prior sanctuary. “But we were a better church afterward. We were going to need to rebuild, and Lord just planned it for that time. Maybe that was the same thing this time. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

A double witness to history

Hart witnessed both the 2010 fire and the 1938 one.

“But I didn’t see them start,” he added quickly.

In 1938, he was a 14-year-old boy with a paper route and he was on his bike going to get his papers when he saw the fire trucks trying to extinguish the blaze. He went on and got his papers, and brought them back to the church so he could watch their efforts while he rolled his papers for delivery.

“That was the one I grew up in, the one in which I was baptized,” he recalled.

When word spread of the latest fire, church members from all over the area came out to watch and mourn.

“It breaks your heart to see your church burn,” Hart said. “When your church burns down, it’s going to be different than anything else.”

What comes next has not been decided, Knox said. It is unknown how long it will take to reach a decision on the cause, and until that decision is made, insurance payments may be held up. Whether the amount insured will be adequate for the cost of rebuilding also is an unknown until a floor plan is drawn up.

Last year the congregation bought a large tract of land on the outskirts of town. There is already a committee in place to make long-range plans, and that panel probably will take the lead in helping to find the answers to the many questions that exist.

But in addition to those questions, “There is also faith, hope and prayer,” Knox said.

“It was a great building, and an excellent tool for God to use to build his kingdom,” Knox said. “We are appreciative that we had that building. But the church is the people, not the building.



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