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‘The church is the people’: Aug. 1 fire destroys Shiloh UMC’s building, not its spirit

By Jessica Connor

LYNCHBURG—Three weeks after the blaze that gutted Shiloh United Methodist Church, the scent of charred timber and brick still lingers.

Papers and chunks of rubble line the base of the structure, now a crush of demolished building. Here and there, you can make out a few things: a kitchen sink. Some books. The rest is just mess and debris.

It s a far cry from the handsome brick sanctuary and fellowship hall that once stood sentry at the corner of Woods Bay and Pudding Swamp roads in Lynchburg.

Fire from an early morning lightning storm demolished Shiloh s sanctuary and fellowship hall Aug. 1, causing an estimated $950,000 in structural damage alone.

Members of the church, built in 1831, are still reeling from the destruction even as they pick up the pieces and turn their sights on a rebuild.

  It s like a death “ there are so many memories,  said Winnie Johnson, a member for the last 53 years, shaking her head as she walked to the site.

It was kind of like losing about 10 family members in an airplane crash,  said Jimmy Myers, a member all his life. It s been tough. 

Longtime member and church financial secretary Patti McElveen was one of the first to know about the blaze. Her husband, Mitch, is the local fire chief, and they were out of bed when the fire alarm sounded around 2:30 a.m. They and their children, ages 11 and 12, headed to the church, but it was too late.

It was gone by the time we got there,  McElveen recalled. We watched the bricks fall down in the back, and my children just cried and cried and cried. It was not a good feeling. 

But even as they acknowledge the pain caused by the fire, the 70 or so members of Shiloh UMC are choosing to find the positive in a tough situation and embrace a new future “ one they feel is directed by the Almighty.

They are sad about losing their church, anybody would be, and they re sad about losing the memories “ a lot of people were married there and had their children baptized there and all that,  said the Rev. John Bolin, Shiloh pastor. But many people are excited about the new opportunity and having a new church. 

This is not the first fire Bolin has had to endure. When he was appointed to the Fairfield Circuit in Winnsboro, he was there just six months when that church burned down.

After the church fire there, everybody was sad, but they eventually understood the church was not a steeple or a pew or stained glass windows or carpet; it was the people. And that s what people have come to understand here,  Bolin said. The church is the people. And we re looking forward to rebuilding. 

McElveen said much the same. While members were devastated about the destruction of the congregation s second home,  she said their tears are drying up and they are focusing on what will be, not what was.

It s sad; we lost everything,  McElveen said, ticking off the many activities Shiloh would host: fifth Sunday dinners, choir practice, meetings, gatherings with nearby sister churches. But we ll rebuild. We re anxious to get started. 

For Myers, the aftermath has been difficult, yet oddly comforting. Sifting through the ashes, he found an old Cokesbury hymnal that had been his when he was 5 or 6 years old; he had painstakingly printed his name in the book, and somehow, it survived the fire. Members also pulled a Bible out of the rubble that was hardly burned, while surrounding it was utter ruin and destruction.

We ll come back stronger from this,  Myers said. The silver lining is I think the Lord wanted us to have a new church and a new fellowship hall, and this was the way to get it. 

The church had insurance on the building, so the rebuild will begin as soon as they get the okay. The congregation also has a cozy nearby place to worship until their new structure is complete. Myers is letting the congregation use his property right across the street, which used to house the community s general store. So instead of traditional pews, they gather in recliners, in folding chairs and around tables as they worship the Lord together in a new way.

Life goes on, and the church is surviving “ and thriving.

The building burned, not the church,  Johnson said. We will rebuild. 

To help the church with its rebuild, send checks to Shiloh UMC Fire Restoration, c/o Patti McElveen, 895 Pleasant Grove Rd., Lynchburg, SC 29080.

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