By Jessica Brodie
HUGER—When the Rev. Shawn Chestnut got the call around 11 p.m. Sept. 6 that her church, New Hope United Methodist Church, was on fire, she never imagined what she’d find when she arrived.
Instead of a small blaze, the entire historic building was engulfed in flames.
“My heart dropped,” Chestnut said. “The church was utterly destroyed.”
Devastated, she and the church secretary spent the night there, along with other church members, watching firefighters extinguish the blaze as all prayed and reminisced about the church, its ministries and its history. Built in 1837, the church had been on the National Register of Historic Places; it was purchased by African-American members of the church after the Civil War.
The cause of the blaze is still under investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and as of press time, no determination had been released.
‘God is still on our side’
In spite of the fire, Chestnut knows that no matter the cause and no matter the difficulty, God has a plan, and she and her congregation are clinging to that knowledge as comfort.
The very next day, as firefighters were picking through the rubble, Chestnut asked one to see if anything could be salvaged from the pulpit area. The first time he looked, he found nothing.
“But he went and looked again, probably because I looked so pitiful and sad, and he came back with the pulpit Bible!” Chestnut said. “It was charred on the outside and around edges, but when I opened it up I could still read the words. I said, ‘Lord, I think You’re talking to me.’
“I knew this was going to be our reminder God is still on our side.”
With that reminder as their rally cry, the congregation has adopted a new post-fire slogan, “New Hope Strong,” making T-shirts and a big sign to proclaim their hope.
Instead of feeling destroyed, they are holding fast to hope and faith.
“We are at peace that God is going to give us more than we had before. We just have to keep on praying and moving forward and gaining ground,” Chestnut said. “God has a newer ‘new hope’ for us.”
Thankfully, Chestnut said, New Hope has more than one building—the historic sanctuary, which burned, but also a life center and a lot of land on another nearby site. They had been having drive-up worship services at the life center since the pandemic, so for now, they still have a place to worship.
“It will take time to rebuild and restructure, but we’re really blessed,” Chestnut said.
Prayer sought for the church
Chestnut said South Carolina’s Resident Bishop L. Jonathan Holston visited the congregation on Thursday of that week to pay his respects and offer encouragement and prayer after the fire, which made members feel both uplifted and loved.
Holston also called upon all South Carolina United Methodists to join him in prayer for New Hope and its people.
“We know that God is our refuge, our strength, our ever-present help during times such as this,” Holston said. “We are grateful to all of the firefighters and emergency personnel who responded to the fire. Please join me in keeping the New Hope congregation and church leadership team in prayer as they begin to work their way through this devastating loss.”
In addition to prayer, anyone who wishes to help the church with donations can go to https://www.givelify.com—just enter New Hope United Methodist Church in Huger to give online.
People can also mail donations to New Hope, Attn: Rev. Shawn Chestnut, 1013 Charity Church Road, Huger SC 29450.
About the church’s history
According to the State Historic Preservation Office, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, the congregation of New Hope organized in 1837. At that time the congregation consisted of both white members and enslaved African-American members from surrounding plantations. After the Civil War, the African-American members purchased the church building and reorganized as an African Methodist Episcopal congregation. A new church, a frame building, was completed in 1910.
In the 20th century, the congregation converted from an AME Church and joined The United Methodist Church. Traditionally, worship services are held during fifth Sunday, when local ministers hold an “All Day Meeting.”
During the 1960s members of the community would gather as “Joshua’s Army” and march from Loretta Bridge to New Hope. The current sanctuary was completed in the 1950s.