God was at work the day the church burned.
The Bethlehem Missionary Church building in Salters ended up a complete loss, but its African-American congregation immediately rallied under the leadership of Pastor O’Tis Prioleau.
He recalls receiving the tragic news around 4 a.m. on a Tuesday night.
“From the moment I got the call, my whole attitude was, ‘Lord, I’m going to simply rely on you.’ We are experiencing a grieving process, because not only have we lost the physical property, but also so much history of the church,” Prioleau recalled.
Ian Geimer, pastor of First Baptist Church, Kingstree, was driving when he heard the news. He tried to process the imagined heartbreak of being a pastor of a church that burned to the ground. Bethlehem Missionary Baptist was only about 10 miles down the road, but the two pastors had never met.
“I immediately wanted to love this congregation and do something for them. One of my deacons called me, and we realized we were thinking the same thing,” Geimer said of the idea that came next.
First Baptist owns a missions church building that once hosted a Hispanic congregation but was currently vacant. Geimer tracked down Prioleau’s contact information to offer the building to Bethlehem Missionary Baptist to use for as long as they needed in order to provide a place of consistency during the transition period.
“I would hope that another church in our community — regardless of race — would love us if we were faced with a situation like this one. This is a partnership and a brotherhood among churches,” Geimer added.
The first Sunday after the fire on July 16, 2019, Bethlehem’s members worshipped outside at the church site. It was a sort of memorial service that allowed the congregation to process their shared grief. That day, no one could have imagined where their next worship service was to take place, just one week later.
There is a racial divide in Kingstree. Historical struggles play out in a county (almost 80 percent African-American and 20 percent Caucasian) through the public school system, which is exclusively African-American — compared to the all-white private schools nearby. Kingstree cemeteries are separate and its churches, too.
“As pastor of a white church in Kingstree, I knew there would be big challenges, but we aren’t called to be racially divided. If we’re a church in this community that’s called to identify with and serve this community, we are asking God to open the eyes and hearts of our people to see needs, serve and truly be a unified community,” Geimer said.
A community of Indian nationals has been growing in Kingstree as international teachers come to teach in the public schools. Not long after Geimer was called to First Baptist, he began building relationships within that community, and in the years since, several Indian families have joined the church and the sanctuary choir. The church has also begun an Upward basketball program — the only one in the county — that has invited families of different ethnicities to get to know each other.
“These relationships started softening our church’s heart. We have opened our doors and eyes to the community, and we have a racially diverse ministry now because of it,” Geimer said.
The doors of the church opened even wider on Aug. 4, when Geimer invited Prioleau and his congregation to a joint worship service with a combined choir, both pastors sharing equal time behind the pulpit and deacons from both churches serving communion. A local restaurant and grocery teamed up to provide a fellowship lunch following the service.
“I was amazed at how the Lord worked that morning. The message the Lord gave me was more ministering to Ian’s congregation, and the message Ian gave was to my congregation. That wasn’t preplanned, the Lord just worked it out that way,” Prioleau recalled.
“There had never been a black preacher in a white pulpit, or a black congregation invited to worship with a white church in Kingstree. It was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had,” said Geimer.
“It wasn’t just a service — it was the two churches coming together. There’s a bigger message here of love, unity and breaking down racial barriers. I believe that the Lord is using both of our churches to show His strength in the community,” Prioleau added.
Addressing Racial Reconciliation
The two pastors speak transparently when asked about racial reconciliation and what God can do in and through churches. Geimer credits a recent Southern Baptist Convention panel on racial reconciliation for challenging him to look for ways to intentionally build relationships. In Prioleau, he has found a fellow pastor to journey with as he pushes racial barriers.
“There’s just no room in the Body of Christ for racism. We’ve hurt ourselves by racially segregating our churches. It’s dramatic to talk about a church burning to the ground, but how many little community needs are never met because we’re self-absorbed in a racial mindset? What could God do in our communities if we were truly unified? It would be completely shocking to see the needs of the impoverished and homeless actually met within a community if there was unity among churches,” Geimer said.
“Through this experience, the Lord has shown how much we need each other. If you look at our society and the challenges that exist, it’s not a black problem or a white problem — it’s a sin problem. The only way we’ll be victorious is through love,” Prioleau added.
Originally deeded in 1783 to slaves from slave masters, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist was one of the first predominantly African-American churches in the community. When Prioleau discovered that the church pews destroyed in the fire had originally come out of First Baptist years ago, he recognized this relationship has always been God-driven.
“The truth is, the church is both African-American and white. To me, that’s awesome,” he said.
“Through our friendship, O’Tis and I have begun this understanding of our community and how racially divided it has been. We are walking carefully, asking God to use this to bring a light to something that’s been such a negative thing here for so long,” Geimer explained.
Prioleau admits to having passed First Baptist countless times without knowing anything about the church or its pastor. “I have gained this affection from a spiritual standpoint, a realization from the Lord that I’ve been so blind. God has broadened my perspective on the purpose of ministry, and I can see us working together for the greater needs of our community,” he said.
The Lord has used a tragic situation “to open the doors and hearts of both churches to this big blessing of unifying churches and community,” Geimer pointed out. “This is now a life partnership together,” he said.
“I believe that the Lord has a greater work for us to do. I don’t believe it’s just for a time. I believe that this will become the new normal. I look forward to when we’re in our new church and I get to invite Ian over to share a word with us,” Prioleau said.
— Julia Bell is a writer for SCBC Communications.