Church fire guts building, not spirit

Sally Curtis AsKew was in Seattle, getting ready for a United Methodist Judicial Council meeting, when she learned about the fire that consumed her beloved church - Oconee Street United Methodist in Athens.

The fire, detected around 10 p.m. April 15, gutted the 111-year-old structure. The cause has not been determined. The blaze apparently started in the basement of the wood structure, AsKew said.

"I am sitting in a hotel room in Seattle, still crying so hard I have to stop to wipe my eyes often," the Judicial Council clerk said.

Gathering on the church lawn the evening after the tragedy, the congregation joined for a prayer vigil.

"The building is so visible," AsKew said, "up on Carr's Hill. When you come across the river from downtown, you see the lighted cross."

That cross has beckoned a diverse, "very welcoming" congregation - university professors with Ph.Ds, uneducated people and everyone in between - to worship and to witness.

Oconee Street, AsKew said, is "a perfect example of a church that 'reimagined itself' many years ago and continues to press forward today."

About 30 years ago, the membership had shrunk to the point that the congregation could no longer support a full-time pastor. So when a new nonprofit, Action Ministries, was getting off the ground, Oconee Street became a partner with the group.

Today, the congregation of 125 is flourishing, and Action Ministries - an independent, faith-based corporation affiliated with The United Methodist Church - furnishes food, legal assistance, educational services and nursing care. "I cannot even tell you how many programs Action Ministries offers," AsKew said.

'I see a bright future'

The Our Daily Bread soup kitchen is housed in the former parsonage, adjacent to the historic church.

According to the Athens Patch, Our Daily Bread provides more than 60,000 meals a year and collaborates with more than 70 volunteer groups, both church-related and secular. The program serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Because it receives no federal funds, AsKew said, it "serves not only people below the poverty level but also the working poor."

Since the fire, the outpouring of love and offers of help, AsKew said, have been overwhelming.

Church fires challenge United Methodists

In 2012 and 2013, fire destroyed or damaged more than a dozen United Methodist church properties across the United States. Arson was the cause of at least five fires. The insured property value ranged from $10,000 to $3.3 million, but several churches lacked adequate insurance to cover full replacement costs. Earlier this year, United Methodist News Service published a series on this topic - Churches dealing with disaster.

"Local groups have stepped up to provide breakfasts all week.Another small-membership church - Temple United Methodist, out in the country east of Athens - stepped right up and is bringing breakfast today."

Oconee Street's pastor of 13 years, the Rev. Lisa Caine, said the Athens community and the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference have reached out to the congregation, donating space for worship and various ministries.

"I have a hard time being here (in Seattle) and not there," AsKew said. "But there's nothing I could do except be with the people.

"Although the church building is gone, and some planned projects are on hold for now, the church will rebuild and move forward with the help of God and many humans."

Young Harris Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown Athens already has opened its facility to its Oconee Street sisters and brothers. The congregation will worship in the Young Harris gym.

Caine's outlook is positive. "We've been so blessed by so many people in so many ways," she said.

"I see a bright future. This isn't what we had planned, but we are going forward with faith and trust in God."

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn. (615)742-5470 or [email protected].

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