JAMES ISLAND – When Fort Johnson Baptist assembles for Christmas worship, members will assemble in the church gymnasium, not the sanctuary.
This is because a fire destroyed the main worship space of the church in September.
But Fort Johnson parishioners understand that the Christmas spirit isn’t confined to a specific space. The joy and love that accompanies the holiday season can be found wherever believers gather.
After all, this wasn’t the first time Fort Johnson Baptist has been devastated.
A spray-painted wooden sign was used to advertise worship services days after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 knocked down the church steeple. The sign, which had been stored above the church ceiling, reappeared after part of the air surface gave way in the September fire.
“It’s a good reminder that even after a disaster good things can happen,” said Pastor Marty Middleton, 43.
During the Christmas holiday season – one of the most important times of the year for the Christian community – Fort Johnson tries to preserve a sense of hope as the congregation continues to fight the destruction of its place of worship . At the same time, the faithful are reviewing what it really means to be a church, inspired by a wave of support from the community and from congregations that have faced similar challenges.
A message from the mess
A preschooler was the first to smell the smoke on September 9, telling his mother, “It smells like barbecue in here.” The boy’s mother, a teacher at the church’s preschool, called emergency services around 8:30 a.m. to report a fire at the church, located at 1473 Camp Road.
Firefighters from the James Island Public Service District Fire Department and other agencies in the area were able to put out the blaze within an hour. Authorities determined that a lightning strike struck the steeple and started the fire. The steeple fell during the fire, taking with it about half of the roof.
The damage caused by the fire is mainly concentrated in the sanctuary. The church’s educational building, which houses the nursery school, was not affected by the fire itself, although it suffered water damage from fire hoses.
Helen Needham grew up in Fort Johnson. His family was a founding member of the congregation, established by James Island Baptist in 1960.
The Fort Johnson Sanctuary holds precious memories for their families. Needham, his sisters and daughter all celebrated their weddings in the church sanctuary. The children of Needham were baptized there. She held back tears as she remembered the day the building was engulfed in flames.
“When I saw that the church steeple was gone, I cried,” she said.
Standing in the pulpit of the shrine earlier this month, Middleton inspected the rubble. Broken glass, charred wood and other debris were strewn on the floor and on the benches. The sanctuary’s ceiling collapsed, leaving a gaping hole that reveals a blue sky. Mold has invaded many walls. The ground was soaked in rainwater.
The destruction is a visual reminder of the mess that exists in the world, Middleton said. The concept rings especially true this year as we all continue to navigate, with uncertainty, the pandemic.
“Sometimes when you come to church your life is a mess,” Middleton said. “But God is restoring this mess – taking this mess and sending a message.”
The church has adapted, moving its preschool to a separate campus building and its worship services to the church gymnasium, normally used for local recreational basketball games. The pastor predicts that reconstruction will begin in a few weeks, after the church’s insurance company determines whether it will be possible to renovate the existing shrine, or whether the church needs to demolish it and build a new one.
Middleton said her task was to help her congregation stay focused on the church’s mission and stay positive. His most recent series of sermons, “Hopeful Expectation,” tells the faithful to expect kindness at the end of this tragedy. This relates to the holiday season, when the themes of hope and peace are predominant.
Members of Fort Johnson were eagerly awaiting positive, yet simple, changes that might emerge from the fire, like a fresh carpet, new benches, and perhaps a new sanctuary.
Worship services, although in a non-traditional setting, have been a source of inspiration. The turnout has been constant and a sense of hope permeates the room, Middleton said.
“God’s promises are true,” Middleton said. “So when he says he comes to bring peace and comfort, he will when we trust him.”
The tragedy also taught Fort Johnson parishioners to focus more on relationships.
Since the fire, church members have gathered on certain Wednesday evenings to pray specifically for the restoration process. New relationships are also being formed. The congregation has grown with the addition of five families who have joined the church in the past three months.
For the most part, Fort Johnson has sought to maintain a steady rhythm of Christmas programs and missionary activities.
The church’s preschool moved its annual Christmas pageant to the front lawn. Small children, dressed to represent angels and wise men, told the Bible story of Christmas and sang holiday songs. The church continued its involvement in Operation Christmas Child, an initiative where churches buy Christmas gifts for children around the world. The congregation also purchased gifts for a few local families who are caring for foster children.
“We didn’t let the fire stop us,” Needham said.
Continue to serve
Fort Johnson has also seen a wave of community support.
A church donated public address equipment to the church for use during Sunday service. Another congregation donated toys and tables at Fort Johnson to use for kindergarten to replace items damaged by smoke. Local businesses donated food to worshipers who set up chairs and supplies over the weekend for Sunday worship.
Several other faith communities have sent financial donations, including St. Andrew’s in Mount Pleasant, which donated $ 10,000 to Fort Johnson to show support.
St. Andrew’s can understand the difficulties faced by the James Island group. Mount Pleasant Church lost all of its ministry center in a massive fire in 2018, leaving the congregation of about 2,000 without a place of worship and its day school without a meeting place.
Bishop Steve Wood recalled that the days after the fire were mostly about addressing these immediate concerns. But Wood said he also tried to keep St. Andrew’s focused on its mission of service.
In doing so, he wrote a letter after the fire that eventually became a form of regular communication, keeping members encouraged and informed of the rebuilding schedule.
“I just told them everything would be fine,” he said.
The church then engaged in ministry outside the building. St. Andrew’s “adopted” a fire station in Mount Pleasant and served baked goods to firefighters. The lawyers and architects of the congregation offered their skills to help the church in its process of renovation. Members held prayer walks throughout the Mount Pleasant neighborhood where the church is located. The parishioners bought roses for some neighbors. Worshipers began to build relationships with teachers at Mount Pleasant Academy, where the church began hosting Sunday services.
Wood’s advice at Fort Johnson is, despite the tragedy, to seek opportunities to serve others.
“The hardest thing is that a fire, and those kinds of circumstances, can be so all-consuming that you’re missing out on what God is doing right now,” Wood said. “Focus on the mission. Keep the essentials essential. Pay attention to what God is doing around you. It mobilizes the people around you.