Fire-damaged churches in Gatlinburg: God is still with us

The youth building at First Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, Tenn., burned down, but its main building survived. (Larry Burcham)The pastors of three churches whose buildings sustained major damage in Gatlinburg, Tenn., wildfires Nov. 28 say God is at work in their congregations despite sadness and tragedy.

Meanwhile, Tennessee Baptist Convention Executive Director Randy Davis has called for prayer amid ongoing ministry efforts by Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief workers.

Some 15,000 acres in and around the resort area of Gatlinburg have burned thus far, with four deaths reported and "hundreds of structures and homes" destroyed, Knoxville's WBIR TV reported.

Larry Burcham, pastor of First Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, said it is "amazing" the congregation's worship center didn't burn when fire claimed a renovated motel next door that the church used for storage, youth ministry and a custodian's residence.

"The firemen did some extra special work down there and saved our church building," Burcham told Baptist Press. "I'm still not sure how."

Burcham has spoken with about a dozen church members who lost their homes in the fire, including Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner and City Manager Cindy Ogle.

"The people here are very tenacious," Burcham said, "and they're obviously in touch with reality enough that this hurts and it's discouraging. But yet they believe God's still with us as well, walking with us through this situation."

Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, Tenn., lost both its worship center and fellowship hall to wildfires Nov. 28. (Kim McCroskey)Pastor Kim McCroskey of Roaring Fork Baptist Church, which lost its entire facility to fire, said he expects a revival that has been occurring among the congregation to continue.

Roaring Fork, which averages some 230 in worship, baptized 29 people last year and approximately 10 over the first three months of its current church year, McCroskey said. The congregation has paid off $700,000 in debt over eight years.

People are "being saved and will be baptized in creeks and rivers and borrowed baptisteries until we get our building back," McCroskey told BP.

He hopes the two buildings that were destroyed both will be rebuilt within a year. In the near future, the congregation plans to meet in a camp facility owed by the local Sevier County Association of Baptists.

"We've had overcrowding problems for a few years now, with people having to look for seats," McCroskey said, noting the congregation had been saving to build a new worship center. "Now we're going to get that taken care of. We've just got to stay strong and stay focused."

Banner Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, Tenn., lost its fellowship hall to fire and sustained damage to another small building. (Courtesy/Pete Lamon)Pastor Pete Lamon of Banner Baptist Church, which lost its fellowship hall and sustained damage to two other buildings, said his current sermon series on the Old Testament book of Job has proven "almost prophetic."

"The title of my series was 'When the Storms of Life Are Raging,' and the whole point is how you deal with hard times," Lamon told BP. "... We never thought of it in this context."

A former volunteer firefighter who served 10 years as assistant chief of the Gatlinburg Fire Department, Lamon said a small Sunday school building sustained "some exterior damage." Smoke damage to the sanctuary likely will take three or four weeks to repair.

In the meantime, the congregation will locate a temporary meeting place, Lamon said.

The fire seems to be "something that will strengthen us as a congregation," Lamon said. "Like at most churches, hard times pull people together. They begin to work together, and they realize how much they need each other."

Davis, who pastored for 10 years in Sevier County before becoming TBC executive director, wrote in a Nov. 29 statement that his "heart is breaking for the people of Gatlinburg and the surrounding area."

"However, you'll be proud to know that within 24 hours [of the destruction], Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief teams mobilized and were on site serving evacuees and others," Davis wrote.

"There are feeding units and chaplains on the scene and more teams are staging to deploy."

"Above all," Davis called believers to pray for people in affected areas, noting, "The emotional, physical and economic impact of this event is enormous. We need our Great God to pour out His mercy and grace in this situation."

Tennessee Baptist DR units have suspended one feeding operation at least temporarily because local restaurants have been donating meals, TBC Disaster Relief Specialist Wes Jones told BP. DR workers will, however, feed 175 National Guard troops Wednesday and Thursday.

Three shower units were scheduled to arrive in Sevier County Nov. 30 for use by displaced persons, Jones said. Damage assessment crews hope to begin work soon, with chainsaw teams, ash-out teams and laundry units possibly deploying as well.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.

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