A church fire and Easter

Published 12:00 pm Sunday, April 24, 2022

One Friday morning, I received an emergency phone call about a fire at Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Amelia. I drove out there immediately. To my horror all that remained of the church were cement steps leading to a few charred posts. Church members and bystanders could only stand and stare in shock. It was like witnessing the death of a beloved family member.

A church building represents ministry to the community and many shared memories of baptisms, funerals, worship services, covered-dish suppers, meetings, children and youth activities.

That Sunday, our church canceled services to join their congregation. We came to grieve and bring gifts. We expected a funeral. Instead, we witnessed the miracle of a church being reborn.

A colorful banner hung over the front steps: Worship, Sunday 9:45 a.m. Enthusiastic greeters welcomed us with bulletins and yellow ribbons. Chairs were placed on the lawn directly in front of the ruins. A pulpit, a cross and pictures of the church were placed on the front steps. A pick-up truck held a makeshift sound system.

The pastor attended a meeting on the night before the fire, discussing building an addition, which would include a fellowship hall and kitchen. Then he described the total shock of the fire and how he kept returning to the scene to make sure it wasn’t a nightmare. Then, he paused and announced in a loud voice: “We will build a new church and this church will have our new fellowship hall and a kitchen.” Our sadness turned to enthusiasm as we cheered.

The pastor then spoke of a stranger driving by who took all the money out of his wallet, handed it to him and vowed to come back with more. A cabinetmaker promised new cabinets. A carpenter volunteered his labor. A church offered their mission team. Another church offered free use of their building. Others donated hymnbooks and office equipment.

Amidst the smoking ruins, Tabernacle United Methodist Church began to dream and build toward the future. A miracle was quietly taking place.

On another early Sunday morning, women went to the tomb loaded with spices to prepare the body of one they deeply loved. The Messiah they hoped for, dreamed about, followed at great sacrifice was lying in a borrowed tomb. I can’t imagine the pain they felt, not only losing their friend but also losing the hope they placed in Jesus to be their Lord and Savior.

Imagine their surprise seeing the stone placed over the entrance of the grave rolled away. The grave itself, empty. Jesus was gone. What happened?

Two men in dazzling white appeared: “Why are you looking among the dead for someone who is alive? He isn’t here! He is risen from the dead! Remember what he told you back in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be betrayed into the hands of sinful men and be crucified, and that he would rise again on the third day.” The women ran to tell the disciples, but it sounded like nonsense. Peter ran to see for himself. He’s greeted with an empty tomb.

All seemed lost on Friday. All seemed lost on Saturday. But Sunday morning was radically different. Jesus wasn’t finished. God wasn’t finished. For proof we remember the empty tomb.

Those attending services Sunday morning also saw something radically different. Sometimes, it takes a tragedy, to remind us of the important role of God’s church. Over the next few months, there were countless miracles as Tabernacle United Methodist Church began to rebuild. What began as tragedy, turned into a miracle of rebirth as people and funds appeared when needed.

Several years ago, I asked another church for stories about how church impacted their lives.

One woman was devastated when she unexpectedly found herself in the middle of a divorce. She had all the emotions of betrayal, shame, loneliness, insecurity and desperation. She had no family in the area to turn to. A church member invited her to come. She was welcomed so warmly and genuinely she returned. The friendship and faith of the people she met combined with the inspiration of the services seemed to be aimed right at her. She said, “I felt the true presence of Jesus Christ. I have never been so happy. I try to show the gift of God’s love to all I meet.”

One member is a nurse at a hospital. She will often offer to pray with patients. In her words, the Holy Spirit “directs me to offer this precious gift of prayer.” Being a patient at a hospital can be an overwhelming experience. She feels called to offer the healing comfort of God.

When our newspapers were filled with news of violence, our youth director asked for help from the congregation to bake cookies and give them to those who serve in our community so we could say “Thank you and we are praying for you.” 

One Sunday, a family, newly arrived from war torn Liberia walked into church. From that day, we began to provide transportation, household goods, furniture, job assistance, English and driving lessons, financial assistance and friendship. Long after the family was settled, we continued our friendship. Recently, a fourth child was born. She was named after two members of our church.

One year after the fire at Tabernacle UMC, I attended another worship service in that same place: This time to dedicate a new building with a fellowship hall and a new kitchen. We celebrated a miracle of rebirth. In twelve months, money was raised, contractors secured, and a new church was built on the ashes of the old. During the rebuilding, people were caught up in the enthusiasm. Worship attendance and membership nearly doubled.

On the day of the church fire, two Easter Lilies were placed on the front steps of the burned-out sanctuary as a symbol of hope for rebirth. One year later a new church stood proud surrounded by hundreds of new lilies as a vivid reminder of how God creates new life from the ashes.

REV. LARRY E. DAVIES can be reached at larrydavies@vaumc.org.