By Jessica Brodie
SIMPSONVILLE—Advent United Methodist Church is recovering this month after a fire Feb. 8 destroyed its sanctuary.
No one was injured in the blaze, which happened around lunchtime that day after construction crews renovating the structure reportedly sparked a small fire while cutting steel. Now, church leaders are doing their best to carry on, armed with prayer and a commitment to perseverance.
“The building burned, but the church is still here, and we’re moving forward,” said the Rev. Michael Turner, Advent’s senior pastor. “We believe we’ll be stronger than ever.”
The sanctuary was under renovation as part of an expansion project to add 80 percent capacity, plus build a new gathering space, music rehearsal area and offices, and the congregation had been worshipping in the church gym. Because of that, Turner said, everything was out of the sanctuary except for a few items, which was a stroke of providence. Another blessing was the timing; he said if the fire had happened 10 days earlier, they would have had a struggle evacuating students from their Hope Academy out the back exit.
Still, the damage was devastating.
“We were taking the old balcony out, and the guys were cutting the last little bit of steel out. They followed protocol, waited an hour after using torch and used a fire extinguisher, then they went to lunch,” Turner said.
He said two of the workers went to McDonald’s and came back. They realized there was a small fire, banged into the wall with a sledgehammer and began fighting the flames with a fire extinguisher. Meanwhile, a passerby saw smoke and called the fire department, which arrived just as the crews realized the blaze was beyond their control.
“We were all in the other building working and didn’t know,” Turner said. “I was standing in the lobby of my office when I saw a fire truck coming down the road, slowing down, and saw them turn in. My first thought was that it was a false alarm.”
He walked out and smelled smoke—but it was far worse than any of them imagined.
Four fire departments fought the blaze with three ladder trucks and 2-3 million gallons of water, but it was like a bad dream, Turner said.
“They couldn’t stop the fire. It was up in walls and into the roof, and once it was in the insulation, they couldn’t slow it down,” Turner said.
The walls are still standing and a portion of the roof, but the structure is in complete ruin.
As of press time, Advent had not yet heard from structural engineers as to whether they will be able to rebuild or whether it will be a complete demolition and they will have to start over. If the latter, Turner said they will likely use the experience to discern the best path forward.
‘We’ll keep on being Advent’
But Advent considers itself a resilient congregation, and Turner and Advent members said their church is far more than a building.
Member Jane Smith said the destruction of the sanctuary is sad, but it’s not everything.
“My husband and I have been a part of the church since before it was chartered 31 years ago, but what made it holy space for us was not the walls and the ceiling; it was what happened in the space,” Smith said.
Smith said the day after the fire, Advent’s Backpack Blessings ministry packed 188 backpacks full of food for local children in need just like they normally do, and that weekend they held Scout Sunday and commissioned a team to go to Guatemala with United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. On Thursday night, they held a packed worship service in the gym that drew more than 600 people to pray for the church, and even as the fire blazed, Advent members were on the scene, providing food, water and other care for the firefighters and construction workers.
“We’ll keep on being Advent,” Smith said. “It’s a setback, but we will be stronger than ever.
“God’s been with us before we were formed, and He’s still with us.”
Jim Tindal, church council chair, said that what puts the church-beyond-a-building concept into perspective is realizing that, even while the sanctuary burned, the work of the church was still very much going strong. There were families living in safe homes that are no longer homeless because of Advent’s Christmas Miracle Mission and the fact that they have purchased four bridge homes. There was work being done preparing for Advent’s March Mission Madness projects that will make people in the community warm, safe and dry. There were children in Tanzania who went to preschool in a building constructed by Advent. There were people who received medical care in the clinic there built by Advent, as well.
Tindal said the church has come together after the fire and refocused itself on its mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“The fact that the work of the congregation and the church continued even while the fire was burning is just a wonderful testimony to Advent and its membership,” Tindal told the Advocate. “It’s been a real blessing to watch how Advent has rallied around this.”
The Sunday after the fire, Turner preached on “living stones” from 1 Peter—a message he ironically chose weeks before the blaze to help the congregation embrace its temporary worship space in the gym and understand the church is far more than a building.
“We are living stones on the firm foundation of Christ our cornerstone, and we know that we are called to proclaim the mighty acts of Him who called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light. And there is nothing, not a single thing, that is going to stop us,” Turner closed his sermon the Sunday after the blaze. “Yes, our sanctuary burned down, but Christ is our cornerstone. You think that’s going stop us? Not a chance. A few flames? Is that all you got? You are living stones. The life-giving breath of God, the Holy Spirit is living in us. Not even the gates of hell could prevail against us.”
Prayer greatly needed
Turner said that prayer is greatly needed right now, especially as Advent leaders explore future steps with construction of the sanctuary.
Smith said the number of people who have reached out to Advent from all over the nation, even as far away as France, has been astounding and humbling.
“The prayers are needed and really appreciated and sustaining,” Smith said.
Advent said the community has also rallied behind the church with love and support. Two weeks before the fire, Turner said, Advent had reached out in Christian love to the Islamic Society of Greenville to offer help through their upcoming service blitz. While the society did not need the help at the time, they appreciated the gesture, and after the fire, they sent flowers to Advent for the service in their temporary sanctuary. Countless others have supported the church with love, prayer and assistance.
Because of love like that and their firm mission to truly be the church, Turner said, “We’ll be OK. The church is still intact.”
The church has established an “After the Fire” fund on its website; visit www.advent-umc.org.