By Jessica Connor
FLORENCE—Four years ago, the worst thing imaginable happened to the members of Dawsey United Methodist Church: A rogue bolt of lightning burned their beloved home-away-from-home to the ground.
Gone were the meeting rooms that used to bustle with United Methodist Men meetings, Bible studies and mission efforts. Gone was the pretty sanctuary that, week after week, ushered in the Holy Spirit and offered the Good News for all to hear.
Gone was their gathering place, their nucleus, the place they had been baptized and married.
Instead, they were left with a shell of a structure, heavy decisions to make and lots and lots of pain.
But now, four years of wilderness later, the church is experiencing its very own resurrection. Everything they ever knew about church was washed away. And while the building process was difficult and divisive, Dawsey s pastor the Rev. Angela Etheredge-Manly believes her flock has come out on the other side stronger and completely ready for what God has planned.
They re learning to be a church again, Etheredge-Manly said.
Before the fire, Dawsey had been like many other UMCs across South Carolina: struggling to thrive and grow despite dwindling membership numbers and an increasingly unreligious society. Started in 1969 and named after the late United Methodist Bishop Cyrus Dawsey, who is originally from Horry County, the church strived to be missional and strong after its namesake, who was dubbed the Asbury of Brazil and rode a donkey throughout that country proclaiming the Lord.
We held on, said Bobby DeVane, a charter member of the church, her eyes bright as she recalled years of mission outreach to the community outside its doors.
But after the fire, the church suffered what some would call an identity crisis. Decisions such as what style church to build or whether to change the name caused much friction among members. It took a long time before construction began, and the building process itself also dragged on, only fueling the tension.
There were some hurt feelings because it was so personal to them, Etheredge-Manly said, noting the aftermath was much like a cycle of grief. It was a very, very stressful situation.
Compounding the situation was the variety of places the congregation met over the four years: they met at a barbecue restaurant for a while, then the local school, then used space awhile from the Baptist Association.
It was definitely a wilderness experience, Etheredge-Manly said. Even though a building doesn t make a church, it does give it a cohesiveness.
Now, its new building complete, the church is beginning to come alive again. Recently, they did a community garage sale, a back-to-school cookout with bouncy houses and a Blessing of the Animals service. They are seeking fresh new mission projects and even international mission opportunities. They want to use their new building to help them carry on God s work.
Dawsey is also reaching out to younger people, mentoring them and enabling them to take on leadership roles in the church. Two young people are doing their offering, and the youth are writing their own music to older songs. They are embracing new technology, using Skype to include a member in Sunday school who is now away at college.
Perhaps because of all this, they are growing: slowly, but steadily.
I feel He s leading us for a reason, and I think God s hand was in all of this, DeVane said. We re ready for a new beginning and to put all of that behind us.
We re learning to be the church again, to be cohesive again, to overcome our grief and be a light to the community, Etheredge-Manly said. No longer focused on the physical but on building ourselves back up.
It doesn t hurt that the new building has much to offer its members and the surrounding community. Painted a fresh gray with bright white trim, the Mark Ward-designed building is contemporary with traditional elements “ much like Dawsey itself. Sunday school rooms, spacious nursery, new fellowship hall and kitchen, big airy sanctuary, open foyer and portico welcome members, guests and visitors inside the church. A green building, the structure screams new between the smell of fresh paint and the clean lines that mark the design. Bells sound every hour, a gift to the neighborhood and the church family.
Their structure complete, their wounds on the mend, members now turn their sights on a God-led future.
It s a new beginning for us wherever God leads us to, DeVane said. We know he has a mission for us, and He ll open up and tell us what He needs us to do.