Approximately one year ago, there was an infamous series of church fires which claimed national and some international attention. For days, which became weeks, national news outlets descended on rural Alabama to cover the terrible acts of arsonists, who were months later apprehended by authorities and are now facing the justice system.
Within 24 hours of the first five incidents, then-SBC President Bobby Welch and I were on the scene to offer support through our presence and prayers to those church families. In a matter of days, mobile units were on site for the churches to use in their Sunday School and worship ministries. They did not miss a worship service because of this trauma.
Recently, I reflected on this situation in response to the anniversary of the despicable acts, and I could still see and smell the smoke coming out of the debris where the church buildings once stood. Also, I can still see the determined faces of dedicated church members who said with confidence, “We will build back bigger and better.”
On a return visit to one church, we had a Sunday afternoon worship service where a man joined the fellowship. He was a volunteer firefighter who had tried to save the church building but to no avail. However, he was impressed with the spirit of love and commitment on the part of the church and said, “I want to be a part of this church.”
A pastor of another church said, “This just serves to remind us that the church is not a building; it is the people, and now we can prove that to be true.” This was a sermon in a sentence if I ever heard one. That was the testimony of virtually all the church leaders I met.
The news media came to find what happened and who did it. I believe they left seeing something more important. I contend they saw faith, love and hope in action. They saw the people of God coming together, mourning their losses and moving forward by faith in Christ, sharing His love and holding on to the hope He provides. One of the news representatives said to me, “This is a remarkable demonstration of resilience.”
Yes, I can still see the smoke coming out of the remains of church buildings, and I can smell the ashes of the burned materials, but I can see something beautiful as well. I can see the members of those churches holding hands in prayer and worship. I can also see the outpouring of support by Alabama Baptists and others as they sought to help their friends in need. What a sight! What a memory! What a strange blessing! The smoke is gone, but the recollections remain.