James Island church sanctuary destroyed by steeple blaze

“This is not the end,” Pastor Marty Middleton encouraged members of Fort Johnson Baptist Church in a Facebook video after their sanctuary was destroyed by fire Sept. 9. “We will rebuild this place. Our people will continue to serve James Island in a way that makes an impact.”

Lightning struck the church steeple on Wednesday evening and sparks from it smoldered overnight before the blaze erupted the next morning, Middleton speculated.

While he was working with the student ministry, there was a huge lightning strike on campus about 7 p.m. “We looked around to try to find some damage, but we didn’t see anything, so we went home,” Middleton recalled.

Around 8 a.m. the next morning, Middleton received the first phone call. “A little boy — the child of one of the preschool teachers — was actually the first to smell smoke,” he recalled. “He came to his mom and said, ‘Hey, it smells like there’s a cookout here.’”

The steeple of Fort Johnson Church erupts in flames on the morning of Sept. 9, after being hit by a lightning bolt on Wednesday evening.

The mom and some other preschool teachers began to investigate. Then came a second call: “The steeple is on fire!” another teacher shouted.

Middleton lives about 25 minutes away, and by the time he arrived, the steeple had fallen in, and the church’s roof was collapsing. Firefighters from the James Island area were already on the scene battling the fire.

All of the teachers and children present were able to get out safely. “The timing was really perfect, in that we normally have kids coming around nine o’clock, and none of the preschool kids were here yet,” he said. “So nobody was hurt.”

Still, the church buildings are a total loss. “The sanctuary is pretty much toast, and the education space has just a lot of water and smoke damage,” Middleton said. The church’s family life center was not damaged, and the gym will be used to hold Sunday services, he added.

Middleton said he has been encouraged by the large number of community members, pastors, Charleston-area churches, and state and national denominational leaders who have reached out to him to offer assistance since the church fire.

“These past few days, there’s just been a huge outpouring from the community and help from them, from bringing food to offering their prayers and support,” he said.

Middleton has also heard from many in the community who’ve been impacted by the church. “We’ve had several who just have great memories of the building,” he said. “Although we will cherish the memories that we have here, we’ll really try to focus on the mission ahead and be the church. … All in all, everyone, I think, was saddened at first, but we’re hopeful now for what God has in store,” he said.

“The church is not a building … that can be destroyed,” Middleton concluded his Sept. 9 Facebook video. “The church is the people who love one another, care for one another and can worship together. We worship a great God who can do some great things even through this disaster.”

— By Todd Deaton