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Rehobeth Baptist members ‘upbeat’ despite heartbreakcomment (0)

March 2, 2006

By Grace Thornton

The icy February wind whips around Frank and Edith Wilson’s car as they head down the familiar one-lane road to church. The Bibb County Sunday morning is thick with silence broken up every now and then with the quickly dying roar of a passing vehicle. 
Thermometers dawdle just below the freezing point. The air is biting, inhospitable. And at Rehobeth Baptist Church, Randolph (near Lawley), in Bibb Baptist Association, it’s laced with the smell of ash.
But the Wilsons don’t notice the smell quite so much anymore. 
They drive slowly past the charred remains of the sanctuary of Rehobeth Baptist, the church where the two met, got married and over the span of 43 years, buried a number of her family members. They glance at the eight front steps that now lead up to nothing but air.
Then it’s time to move on. They pull in at the fellowship hall across the parking lot and open up Rehobeth for business.
“Come on in and make yourself at home,” Frank Wilson says to those waiting outside as warm air pours out through the open door of the fellowship hall and escapes into the outdoors.
Pastor Duane Schliep comes in shortly after, does his best to shake off the cold and asks loudly, “Who left the freezer door open?”
All those standing around laugh. For the weather to have given such a cold shoulder to this Sunday, the air is surprisingly inviting at Rehobeth Baptist. 
And for members to have lost their nearly century-old sanctuary to arson just a little more than two weeks ago, their buoyant spirit is equally surprising.
“There was the initial shock, but since then, everyone has been upbeat,” Edith Wilson said.
Rehobeth was one of five Baptist churches — four of which were Bibb Association churches — that fell victim to arson in the early morning hours of Feb. 3. The sanctuary burned to the ground that morning while horrified church members looked on.
“By the time they got the trucks here, it was too far gone,” said Frank Wilson, a volunteer firefighter called to the scene by a friend who saw the glow of the flames from two houses away.
    And when the church building went, so did its story — blazing across national news. “We have received letters from — mercy, goodness, all over the place,” Schliep said. “Every letter mentions that they are praying for us, and we’re so thankful for that.”
Just that morning — Feb. 19 — Rehobeth members opened letters from government officials, Baptist associations across the state and caring individuals whose history with the little church goes way back. 
The Sunday School early birds sat around that morning for the first time in the church’s new Sunday School space — a mobile chapel on loan from the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions — and counted unexpected checks, recounting the stories of how they got them.
“Here’s a letter from a family whose grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in the church cemetery. Remember doing their grandparents’ funerals way back when? They all sent checks, too, to the building fund.”
“A lady at the beauty shop just the other day stuck a check in my hand and said she just always thought Rehobeth was a beautiful church.”
“Here are letters from the children and youth at a church who split the money they were saving for a trip and sent it to each of the burned churches.”
“Well I’ll be … that sure is humbling.”
“We’re going to bounce right back,” said Norma Moore, a member since the ’50s. Her eyes glowed as she looked toward the door of the mobile chapel where the men of the church had just days before built new wooden steps.
“I looked this morning at the old church steps,” Moore said, gesturing across the parking lot toward the ashes of the sanctuary, “and I wondered how many times I’ve gone up and down those steps. Now I’ve got new steps to walk up.”
Others bounded up the new steps and into the mobile chapel, dividing from the central room into one of the four peripheral rooms now serving as children, youth, men and women’s Sunday School space.
As the women gathered around their new table — part of the donated furniture from area schools — class member Sharon Creel fished for a piece of paper in her Bible cover and pulled out an old church bulletin with a picture of the sanctuary on the front. She studied it for a moment before pushing it back down in the cover’s front pocket.
“They might take away the building, but they can’t take away the memories,” said class teacher Dot McGee. “My pew is gone …”
Shouts of laughter cut her off.
“My bench was burned,” a class member added with a grin.
“Where will we sit now?” still another joked.
“We’ll build again and then we’ll get to pick new pews,” the first replied.
“See? Nothing keeps our spirit down,” said class member Betty O’Neal. “The arsonists — we’ve got to love them and pray for them. They can still pray to Christ for salvation, and they could be a great witness for Him if they will come under His conviction.”
McGee nodded, adding that the churches and the arsonists weren’t the only ones affected by the church burnings. “A reporter came to Norvin Lovelady’s funeral this week, and Dan talked to him after the funeral — he asked what a church was to us, and he asked what that uplifted feeling he had was,” she said.
“I told him it was the Spirit and we talked,” Dan McGee told the congregation of 50-plus while recounting the story later in the worship service. “This is just one of the seeds that’s been planted through this thing.”
A chorus of “amens” rippled across the group.
“There hasn’t been much complaining,” Schliep said as he closed up the fellowship hall after the service. That morning’s sermon had been on Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the wall — emphasizing how God is faithful to complete the work He starts.
“Don’t be discouraged because there is some rubble around,” Schliep told the congregation. “Turn around — look at what God has done in the past. He’ll continue to do it.”
The bivocational pastor’s days since the fire have been filled with meetings with investigators, interviews with major media and moves toward getting things back to normal. His cell phone’s ringing has just started to subside — yesterday, he said with a laugh.
Schliep’s weariness seeps through into his eyes, betraying his energetic socializing, though he won’t admit it. “Nah, it’s not so bad anymore. The first two weeks were hard, but we’re just getting back to it,” Schliep said, looking across the parking lot at the ashes.
He gestures then to land beside the fellowship hall across from the old sanctuary. “We think we’re going to rebuild here instead.”
Plans are to blend the old with the new, saving some of the brick from the old sanctuary and playing it into the design of the new, along with a cross fashioned from the charred timbers, Schliep explained.
New things are happening at Rehobeth across the board, Frank Wilson said — things the members couldn’t have orchestrated if they’d wanted to.
“Since the fire, we have become closer as a church, and we have had a larger crowd, too. God is a master at making the negative come out positive,” he said with a smile. “I’m not going to write them a letter of appreciation or anything, but they’ve done us a favor.”

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