HOW TO HELP
To make a donation, contact Carolyn Mullins at 423-443-2312.
DECATUR, Tenn. — The steeple was the first part of the church to collapse.
As Grace Independent Baptist Church near Decatur, Tenn., burned to the ground Monday night, apparently from a lightning strike, longtime member Carolyn Mullins watched it all from inside her van in the parking lot.
"All I could do was sit there and say, 'Praise God,'" Mullins said. "You're supposed to praise him in the storm."
Several days after the fire, the congregation of the little Meigs County church is heartbroken. Pastor Joe Andrew said he had never seen so much hurt on people's faces as he did in the crowd that watched the church burn. People stood in the heavy rain while thunder cracked in the night sky.
"I've never felt so helpless in my life," said Andrew, who has been the pastor for about five and a half years.
"It was a night that will never be forgotten," he said, choking up.
Despite the heartache, the congregation is hopeful that the church can come back even stronger. They plan to rebuild. The building was insured, but they aren't sure yet whether insurance will cover the cost of building the church just as it was.
For now, they will hold services in the City County Building, a public meeting place in Decatur. Sunday school and services are scheduled for the normal times this Sunday, and Andrew expects standing room only.
He's not sure what he'll talk about in the sermon, but he said he does not want to dwell in the past.
Decatur is a little more than an hour's drive from Chattanooga, between Dayton and Athens. It's a rural community of about 1,500. Many people work in farming or at Shaw Industries on state Highway 58.
On Wednesday evening people gathered at the singed church grounds, in sadness and worship. More than 40 people -- a typical size for the congregation -- came for a service in the parking lot. They set up chairs on the pavement and a wooden table as an altar. People were there who hadn't been to church in ages. A new member even joined during the service.
The foundation of the building remains, but it is filled with ash, nails and piles of broken bricks. Charred and twisted folding chairs litter the exposed basement. When the wind blows in a certain way, a sheet of metal clanks on the bricks, and the air smells strongly like a doused campfire. Church members did salvage two wooden crosses Monday, and the church's bell and rose bushes out front survived the flames.
On Thursday afternoon, a woman driving by pulled into the parking lot to tell Mullins she had found a donated piano for the church. That's just the kind of thing that has been happening all week. Besides the City County Building, they've had two other offers for places to meet. People have donated money, a pulpit and supplies for Sunday school.
"We've just been overwhelmed with calls, with people wanting to help," Andrew said.
When the church was built in the early 1980s, it took a couple of years to build anything beyond the basement. Mullins remembers attending those underground services in the early years with her three small children. People sometimes called it "Groundhog Chapel."
"I raised my kids here. All three of them got married here. All three of them got saved here," she said. "It's home."
Mullins would never think of going to another church, even though the building has been destroyed. After all, she was part of the church before it had proper walls and a roof. She knows it isn't the physical structure that matters most.
"That's the building and it's gone," Mullins said. "But the church is in our hearts. God is in our hearts."
Contact staff writer Mary Helen Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6324.
Mary Helen Miller joined the staff at the Chattanooga Times Free Press as a multimedia reporter in 2013. She produces audio, video, and graphics for the Web, and occasionally writes stories. Before starting at the Times Free Press, Mary Helen worked as a radio reporter at WUTC, the NPR affiliate station in Chattanooga. She won an Edward R. Murrow award for a story she produced there about the anniversary of the 2011 tornadoes that hit ...