Faith, spirit and volunteers rebuild S.C. church New Windsor agency sent teams to help

January 18, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Arsonists razed a century-old chapel in rural South Carolina; faith-filled volunteers rebuilt it.

Butler Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was rededicated last week, and the church invited those who helped rebuild it -- including the staff of a New Windsor service organization -- to three days of renewal ceremonies. The stirring rituals doused the flames that had threatened the core of a small African-American community.

In March 1996, a fire set by young vandals demolished Butler Chapel, one of 85 African-American churches -- 32 in South Carolina -- burned this decade, according to the National Council of Churches. Seven juveniles were charged with the crime, but ** none have been prosecuted.

"I hold no animosity toward them," said the Rev. Patrick B. Mellerson, pastor of the 130-member church in Orangeburg. "Revenge is not part of my belief."

However, he does recommend that "those kids spend a year of Sundays in the front pew at Butler Chapel."

As he stood amid the embers of his church, Mellerson said he knew nothing could destroy its spirit.

"I knew God would give us victory over tragedy," he said.

The Church of the Brethren's Emergency Response/Service Ministries in New Windsor shared his resolve and organized its most ambitious restoration effort. The program, which assists victims of natural disaster, sent work teams -- a new one each week for nearly nine months -- to the town of 15,000 south of Columbia, the state capital.

Nearly 300 volunteers, representing many denominations, gave 10,000 hours to the effort.

"It just shows us you can destroy a building, but you cannot destroy a church," said D. Miller Davis, Emergency Response program manager, so impressed with the spirit of the church that "I would join myself, if it were not so far away."

Davis and others traveled to Orangeburg last weekend to dedicate an 8,500-square-foot brick building, three times the size of the original chapel.

"In everything that was said and done, there was a sense of new life, new beginnings not just for one congregation, but for an entire community of different churches," said Lydia Walker, coordinator of outreach and training for the New Windsor group.

The new structure has a 250-seat sanctuary, a fellowship hall, classrooms and a kitchen. Its steeple is visible for miles.

In his sermon for the dedication, Glenn Kinsel, a retired Brethren minister and building project director, blessed the church as "an island of reconciliation in a sea of still persisting prejudice and bigotry."

Mellerson was grateful, but not altogether surprised, at the volunteer effort.

"When a church burns, we all feel the flames," he said.

The charred chapel kindled "fires of servanthood" in so many and spurred the restoration, said Walker. Volunteers often started their week of service with a stop at the old church.

"What a sad scene," said Jane Yount, program assistant with the New Windsor group, of the fire site. "Still, you could feel it was their sacred place."

Blackened walls, an open roof over a ruined piano, broken windows and miraculously, according to parishioners, an intact painting of Jesus Christ, marked the site where a community had worshiped for 110 years.

"The painting had been hanging behind the pulpit, where the fire started," said the pastor. "It survived and will hang in our new vestibule."

Rather than rebuild on the isolated site, a frequent target of vandals, the congregation bought a more visible 7-acre property along the highway. But, without the generosity of "strangers who have become old friends," church members could not have erected such an impressive structure, said Marion Mack, a Butler trustee and co-chair of the restoration effort.

"It is truly a church built with love," Mack said. "We had no way of knowing so many good people would respond to our cause.

"Every Monday, we knew somebody would be coming to help us," Mack said. "We didn't know what construction skills they might have, but we knew they would have a good attitude."

And, every noon, the women of Butler Chapel served a luncheon to the volunteers in a construction trailer, where Mellerson often led prayers and hymns.

What volunteers lacked in experience, they replaced with "a mind to work," said Mellerson. Nearly all materials were donated. Licensed plumbers and electricians worked alongside volunteers who became brick masons, laying some 70,000 bricks with minimal on-site training.

"They all did really good work, even the brick work, done by trainees," said Davis.

The work of restoring of burned churches has not ended. The New Windsor team is recruiting volunteers to rebuild a Pentecostal church in St. Petersburg, Fla. Some helpers will come from Butler Chapel, Davis said.

On Jan. 7, a fierce fire destroyed the Manchester Church of the Brethren in North Manchester, Ind. Its pastor and several members had volunteered in Orangeburg last summer. Although foul play is suspected and insurance will probably cover most of the loss, Butler Chapel members are already lending support. At the service last Sunday, the collection, dedicated to the Manchester church, came to more than $3,000.

"Our new building shows people can work together in spite of our differences," Mellerson said. "There are still folks concerned about bridging the gap."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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