A steady stream of traffic flowed past Jasper’s First Church of the Nazarene Saturday morning. Most slowed to get a closer look at the devastation left by a fire that swept through the church Friday night. Many others — mostly members of the congregation at the church — stopped to lend a hand with trying to salvage as much as they could and prepare the the Family Life Center for today’s 10 a.m. worship service.
Others — both young and old — tried to make sense of the fire that destroyed a big part of their life.
“Everybody’s heartbroken. There’s so many memories and so much personal loss,” said Greg Story, who has served as pastor at the church for the past seven years. “As you can see, the church is responding tremendously. We had hundreds of people here [Friday] night and again [Saturday] morning setting up things for Sunday services. There’s a spirit, a determination and a trust in God that we’re not going to miss a beat. If anything, as we overcome the emotional loss, we feel it will make the church bigger and better and stronger.”
The fire, which was apparently started by a lightning strike caused by severe thunderstorms passing through Jasper, destroyed the main building of the church, including a large section dedicated to children’s church and a number of offices and classrooms. The sanctuary was left mostly intact, but suffered extensive water and heat damage.
Story, who was named district superintendent of the Nazarene church recently but still oversees Jasper’s First Church of the Nazarene, said he was told by fire officials that the structure was a total loss.
“Once the fire marshals do their inspections, the whole building will most likely have to be torn down,” he said. “Then we’ll start from scratch.”
Story said he’s been touched by the overwhelming response the church has received from the community and other churches in Jasper.
“It’s been amazing the help we’ve gotten,” he said. “We’ve had literally hundreds of calls and Facebook messages from all over the country.”
“Your first reaction is a surreal disbelief. But you learn to lean on the Lord in your life and realize there’s a purpose for what He’s got in store,” said Terry Willeford, the secretary and treasurer at the church and a longtime church board member. “We’re looking to do bigger and better things in this church, and although it’s not a step that man would think of taking, this is what the Lord has in mind and we’ll get to have a fresh start.
“That’s the way I’m going to look at it,” he added.
Jan Usrey, a church board member for the past eight years, said he’s comforted in the fact that while the building was destroyed, the church itself endures.
“It hurts, but then you have to realize that this is not the church,” he said. “This is a shell. We’re going to build a better shell. The church is going to rise bigger and better.”
Jimmy Lee, owner of Son’s Supermarket and a member of the church for the past 48 years, said witnessing the fire destroy the church was overwhelming
“My wife and I pulled up at about 7:20 Friday night and all I could think was ‘It’s all gone, it’s all gone,’” said Lee, who has served on the church board for more than four decades.
Lee said preliminary plans are already in the works to begin rebuilding the church.
“We’ll start from scratch and build it all back again,” he said.
On Jan. 20, 1996, the church was also leveled by a fire caused by a faulty heating unit.
“We’ve been through this before,” Lee said, “and we’ll come back from this again.”
Lee said a Steinway grand piano that is dedicated to the memory of his late father-in-law was among the only things to be salvaged from Friday’s fire.
He said firefighters covered the piano with a tarp in hopes of saving it from destruction.
“My wife and I donated the piano on memory of her father in 1983, and that’s very close to our hearts,” he said. “It’s amazing that it survived. It’s wonderful that it was saved, and it will be a great addition to the new church.”
Story said in the addition to the loss of the church, he lost 30 years’ worth of memories.
“I lost everything in 30 years of being in the ministry that was in my office,” he said. “It was a lot of personal things, sentimental things. But I think this is going to rally the people together and we’re all going to pull together with one mind and one purpose, and I think the church will come out stronger than before.”
“It’s unreal, but it’s going to define who we are,” Usrey said.
“It’s been said that the Lord doesn’t call on us as individuals or as a church to do anything we’re not able to handle,” Willeford added. “Of course, we’re not prepared for something like this, but He’s equipped us with what we need. You can see that by the number of people here preparing for our services tomorrow.
“This will be a good point to rally and bring us back stronger and more determined than ever before to serve the Lord.”