Losing their building to a fire has only further ignited the faith of the members of Hagood Avenue Baptist Church in Barnwell.
As the building burned Aug. 11 following a lightning strike, church members and leaders gathered in the parking lot to pray and support one another. On Aug. 12, the congregation held a prayer and worship service in the parking lot where they were joined by members of the community, including people from other churches.
“In the midst of this terrible event, I witnessed a wonderful church family coming together to pray, cry, and support one another,” said pastor Brandon Sandifer. “I see God using it to draw us closer together as a church family and strengthen our faith.”
He said they have been “very humbled” by the “beautiful and overwhelmingly wonderful” support from the community and beyond, including offers of space to meet. They are especially grateful to First Baptist Church, Barnwell, for allowing use of The Merge to temporarily hold services and the YMCA for letting them use space for staff meetings.
“This is one of the great realities of small-town life. I still believe Barnwell is unique among small towns and is an incredible community,” said Sandifer.
Many individuals and businesses donated food, drinks, coolers, and tents to support the firefighters and congregation. Hilda Fryebaby’s brought its food truck during the fire, while Russell’s Pizza donated 25 pizzas for the prayer service.
“I’m grateful for a community that is loving us so well in the midst of our sorrow,” said youth minister Brandon Howard.
Despite the physical loss of the building, the church continues its ministry.
“When the building goes down, it doesn’t mean the people do,” said member Karrie Bolen.
At the Aug. 12 prayer service, Sandifer said, “One thing God is going to teach us is that the church is more than an event on Sunday, it’s more than programs that happen; the church is a people who have been born by the Holy Spirit through the gospel of Jesus.”
Though the congregation understands that the church is the people, not the building, Sandifer said it’s fine to grieve the loss of the building that holds memories.
“It’s not just a building. It’s where I heard God’s voice through amazing hymns of the faith and where I heard God speak uplifting words when I was so discouraged. It’s where I received direction when I didn’t know which way to go. It’s where prayer was made on my behalf before a serious surgery,” said retired Hagood pastor Ken Catoe.
After moving to Barnwell from Alabama as a teen in 1984, Amy Bozard said Hagood helped fill a void of loneliness for her and her family.
“I grew up in that church, accepted Christ, and was baptized in the original building. Soon after, we moved into the one we lost today. I got married there. I dedicated all three of my babies to the Lord there. Those same babies grew in that nursery and accepted Jesus there and were baptized as well. Every major event in my life was there,” said Bozard. “But it’s not just the major things. It’s the little things. Like watching my daddy and his amazing mentors step out on faith and build that new building. Sunday morning worship. Greeting my precious church family in the foyer. Monday nights when people met to pray for illnesses, infertility, and addictions. Being taught how to serve the Lord.” The list goes on.
For Deanna Grubbs, the building was filled with 31 years of memories, including watching her father, former pastor Ken Catoe, preach on Sundays. It’s where she got married, dedicated her children, and was a “refuge” during difficult times.
“God showed us today what the church really is! It’s a community of believers who are not confined to a building, who go out and serve people in Jesus’ name! It’s people dropping everything on a Friday afternoon to bring food, drinks, tents, and hugs/prayers. It’s pastors/businesses coming by to offer facilities to house our meetings or small group studies. It’s firefighters and their families giving every ounce of energy they had to make sure that fire was contained and everyone was safe,” said Grubbs. “Today was hard! But we will see beauty rise from these ashes.”
For Rebekah Thrasher, Hagood is where she was spiritually fed since birth. “It’s where Jesus saved me. It’s where I learned to trust Him. It’s where I watched my nannie and parents model serving in the church,” said Thrasher, who later got married in the church and is now raising her children there.
“Jesus is still the same. He is still good. He is still God. All things happen for our good, and for His glory. We are the church — the hands and feet of Jesus,” she said.
Sandifer said his prayer is that God continues to use them to bless the community as they seek to bring people to Jesus. “Our treasure is not what we have, not our possessions, not our building; our treasure is Jesus.”
Member Mike Beyer said Satan tried to destroy the church but instead “brought together many communities and churches, from both near and far, glorifying God every step of the way.”
“God has promised that all things work together for the good to those who love and serve Him faithfully (Romans 8:28). Although it may be hard to see how God allowing one of His places of worship to burn and displace His people could be good, we trust the good will come,” said member Adam Bolen.
Church leaders don’t know what insurance will pay yet or the extent of their needs to rebuild, but many have asked how to donate financially. Donations can be made at https://giving.ncsservices.org/App/Giving/hagood by clicking on the “Rebuild & Restore” fund.
Even more important, they need continued prayers and encouragement as they make decisions. They are relying on Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”
“Because Jesus is strong, we are Hagood strong and also Barnwell strong,” said Sandifer.
Fire destroyed the building but not the church.
— Jonathan Vickery is publisher of The People-Sentinel of Barnwell. (Photos provide by Jonathan Vickery and Alexandra Whitbeck of The People-Sentinel)