By Jessica Connor
WALHALLA – They remember it like it was yesterday: the flames eating away at the historic building, the cavernous hole where the sanctuary used to be, the despair in their hearts as they huddled together and watch their church burn.
And yet today, two years after arson destroyed the sanctuary of St. Luke United Methodist Church, many of its members are calling the fire the best thing to happen to the church.
The small-town congregation has found new life through rebuilding, through forgiveness and through turning outward rather than inward. St. Luke has not only healed, but transformed, like a phoenix rising out of the flames. It has spread its wings and begun to fly.
“What has been built out of the ashes is truly a gift from God,” member Terri Havice said. “We at St. Luke feel that we have been truly blessed.”
Hal Duke, a member from infancy, said the fire has revitalized St. Luke.
“The church is more alive now than it has been in the past,” he said.
Phil Phillips, chair of the building committee, summed up the transformation as a revival of attitude.
“One member says jokingly, ‘We need to have a fire every few years,’ but he makes a good point,” Phillips said. “We’ve realized the church is much more than the building.”
They have completely forgiven the arsonist, pray for him daily and hope one day to welcome him in worship.
In fact, they don’t even call him “the arsonist.” “We call him ‘the young man who did this, who set the fire,’” said the Rev. Richard Reams, senior pastor.
This “walk the talk” Christ-like attitude is reaping great benefits for the small church, which is seeing renewed vitality in ministry and membership. Before, they had 150 members at most. Every month since the fire, their average attendance has gone up, and when they worshipped for the first time in their new structure June 5, they had 238 in attendance.
“Everything is trending in the right direction,” Reams said. “This fire has pushed them maybe subconsciously to a decision about faith – the church is more than the location and more than the building; it’s applicable to everyday life. It has taken off because of it.”
Transformation through fire
Members say St. Luke was a typical small-town church before the fire: active, spirit-filled, a mainstay of the community. Some considered the old structure the most beautiful historical building in a town known for gorgeous historic architecture and pretty tree-lined streets.
But on July 7, 2009, all of that changed. A troubled 17-year-old, Cody Lecroy – admittedly high on drugs – ended a nightlong vandalism binge in the basement of St. Luke, where he set a couch on fire. The fire spiraled out of control, and the three-alarm blaze spelled a total loss for the sanctuary.
Susan Roper, head of St. Luke’s Pastor Parish Relations Committee, recalled standing on the street at 2 a.m. watching her beloved church go down in flames.
“We all kind of huddled there together and watched it burn and were in shock and disbelief,” she said.
“It was a loss, as if the loss of a family member,” said Bobbie Wilhite, then-chair of the church council.
But as the shock gave way to sadness, then resignation, something else became apparent: St. Luke, the building, was not the church.
“The people standing on that sidewalk across the street, that was the church,” Wilhite said.
The next Sunday, they met for worship in the Family Activities Building, which had been saved from the fire. A building committee formed. People got to work. Not rebuilding was never in question. A year later, July 2010, St. Luke held a groundbreaking for the new sanctuary, and a year after that, June 5 – almost two years to the date of the fire – they began holding worship in the new sanctuary.
“We didn’t dilly-dally around,” Wilhite said. “We knew what we wanted to do.”
Phillips said the church saw no other choice but to unite and push forward.
“We just looked around and said, ‘This is our church, and we need to take control of this church,’” Phillips said. “You can’t spend a whole lot of time whining about what happened – you’ve got to pick up and move on.”
St. Luke hired what Phillips called “the right builder,” SYS Constructors, and architect Neal Prince. That team, paired with advice from Michael Parker, superintendent of construction for Clemson University and a member of St. Mark UMC, Seneca, saved the church time and money, Phillips said.
But it wasn’t just the physical act of rebuilding their church that healed St. Luke members. As the rebuild progressed, St. Luke began looking more outward than inward.
“Instead of staying in the church and taking care of ourselves, we started trying to expand our ministry out in the community,” Phillips said.
Reams said his parishioners are much more ministry-focused since he was appointed there a year ago, right around the groundbreaking. He said they are finding more ways to serve so the building is busy more than an hour a week.
“The fire solidified them as a group, but not in a negative way – not insular,” Reams said. “They are solidified in going out: new ministries, new outreach, new faces, new excitement. It’s a reinvigorated faith.”
The power of forgiveness
The first Sunday after the fire, Roper remembers her Sunday school class put Lecroy on their prayer list. But more than prayer, it was utter forgiveness that ultimately put the congregation on the path to true healing and transformation.
Lecroy was convicted of arson and sentenced in summer 2010 to 15 years in prison, with the sentence stayed pending successful completion of a one-year rehabilitation program at Teen Challenge in Georgia. The church decided neither to press charges nor speak in Lecroy’s defense, but leave it completely to the judicial system. Lecroy should return to the upstate in September.
Just months after Lecroy started rehab, Ream received a letter from him, which he read aloud in church one Sunday.
“It was almost three full pages, and most of it was him apologizing, saying he’d wanted to write it for a long time, but was scared of what we would think and do,” Reams said. “But he decided he needed to.”
In the letter, Reams said Lecroy asked for the church’s forgiveness, said he had come to Christ and been transformed through faith. He listed his favorite Scripture in the letter, 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here.”
“‘The old Cody that was in Walhalla doing all the drugs and running around that y’all knew is gone, the new Cody is here, amen!’” Reams read from the letter. “That sentence really captures it.”
Reams called Lecroy’s counselor about the letter and was told Lecroy had not been prompted to write that letter; he decided on his own to do it. When he read the letter in church, Reams said he lost count of how many people came up to him urging him to “tell that boy he’s forgiven and we’re praying for him, and he can come to church any time.”
“I thought, ‘I don’t have to preach for a couple weeks &
ndash; y’all got it!’” Reams said, laughing.
Phillips agreed that he and fellow members have forgiven Lecroy completely: “When you are 16 or 17 you make mistakes, and his was just a big mistake.”
“I think God’s working with him,” Roper said. “We said from the very beginning if it took this to turn that child’s life around, maybe that needed to happen.”
Phillips said it is hard to call something like a devastating fire a blessing, “but I think it has been – though it’s a hard way to get a blessing.”
“It was almost like a rebirth at our church,” Roper said. “You can just feel the spirit when you walk in the doors now.”
Wilhite called the transformation “exciting.”
“I think the entire congregation has moved forward,” she said. “That was the past, and we’re now ready for the future.”