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Building a total loss; congregation looks to Godís guidance for futurecomment (0)

October 2, 2003

By Grace Thornton

For decades 80-year-old Alma Johnson would sit in her pew at First Baptist Church, Citronelle, with her open Bible illuminated by the soft-colored light trickling down from stained glass windows she helped design years ago.

So watching those windows blow out of their bricked arches in a shower of splintered glass was “rough” when the church burned down Sept. 24, Johnson said.

She and her husband, C.B., who worked by day and helped other men in the church construct the sanctuary by night in 1946, were among many who wept as they watched fire consume the beloved church they’d built with their own hands.

“Watching those windows actually melt was rough. I’m almost unable to describe the feeling,” she said.

But Johnson, a First, Citronelle, member for 70 years, said she’s seen the church go up, seen it go down, seen problems, seen joys — and the church will “just pick up from here and go on.”

Pastor Max Dempsey agreed, though he — in his first pastorate — has only been at the church 10 months.

Alerted by explosion

Around 2:40 p.m. that day Dempsey watched the steeple plummet through the roof of the large brick building in a ball of fire. That was roughly 20 minutes after an explosion caused by a short in the attic alerted day-care workers to the danger. During that time, all 26 children napping on the first floor beneath the burning sanctuary were taken to safety at a playground about 100 yards away.

“God has been given so much glory through the hearts of the people here. The children are safe, and the older members who helped build it are handling it with so much grace,” Dempsey said. “We didn’t lose our church, we simply lost our building. Our church is stronger than it’s ever been.”

That’s not just a heroic thought in a difficult time, Dempsey said. “It’s the truth. Our church is more excited, more open than ever. That excites me as a pastor.”

‘God is good in all things’

While volunteer firefighters still worked to contain the blaze in the main building at the time the Wednesday evening service normally starts, more than 200 church and community members met in the gym across the parking lot for a worship service, Dempsey said. “The people honestly met to say God is good in all things at all times.”

Former pastors and other pastors from across the state, as well as the man who led Dempsey to Christ, came to encourage the church. “It was an awesome time, and the excitement in the Lord was real and honest,” Dempsey said.

Ironically, though the service took place, another meeting scheduled for that night didn’t — the first meeting of the church’s vision committee, a group of members who were soon to plan the church’s relocation or remodeling.

“We were going to seek the Lord and explore our options,” Dempsey said, noting God helped make the decision for them.

The church, which averaged 325 in Sunday services, only held about 225 people. “We were already outgrowing our facility, and we were fighting a losing battle with the old structure of the church,” Dempsey said. “We’re brokenhearted, and everyone’s shocked, but no one’s really surprised. Sentimentally, [things] are gone, but we’re grateful no one’s injured.”

He added that the community had been “absolutely precious,” with many businesses and municipalities opening their doors to take in the congregation. Temporarily, Sunday services will meet in the Citronelle High School gym, and the day care may continue operation in a nearby elementary school.

Church member Christine Purvis said the close-knit community and all the denominations who pitched in to help were a blessing — “strictly a God thing.”

“The flames were unbelievably heartwrenching, but it was just a building, and we got all the children out. It holds a lot of memories, but we still have our memories,” Purvis said. “It’s not quite what we wanted, but God’s not surprised — He’s in control. It’s tragic, but we’re going to go on.”

Nothing changes, Johnson said. Just as her husband was “right there pushing the wheelbarrow” 60 years ago, he’s still there encouraging the church forward at 83. And the same community is still helping build them up. “We made it then, we’ll make it now. And God will lead us in the right way,”
Johnson said.

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