It’s a sight no pastor or church member wants to see: their church going up in flames. Members showed up on Sunday morning and were faced with the smell of smoke and smoldering ashes. Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church was devastated by a fire only days before Christmas. The Jacksonville congregation gathered in their gym on December 23rd for worship, stunned by the devastating loss of their sanctuary. This is a terrible thing for any church to go through, not to mention the timing of the blaze. It is a blessing that no one appeared to be hurt in the fire, and that some areas of the building could be salvaged.
Pastor Kyle Reese has only been at the church about 18 months, but has shown remarkable courage and leadership during this crisis. His words to a shocked and hurting family of faith on that fourth Sunday of Advent are memorable: “In our strategic planning process,” says Reese, “we’ve been trying to think of ways to reach out and embrace our community. But this morning we’ve seen how the community has reached out and embraced us.” He expressed gratitude to businesses and other members of the faith community for their expressions of support. While on one would have wished this terrible event on the 50-year old congregation, it’s encouraging to see that Reese is on the right track in bringing his church family together. It is a tough way to begin a pastorate. He will be faced with challenges and decisions he could never imagine.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this church, which happens to be a leading moderate congregation in Florida and the CBF in general. When the smoke clears, Hendricks Avenue will have the chance to live out their faith through adversity and difficulty. This situation has thrust them into their community in an unexpected way. This wasn’t part of their planning process. What I’m reminded of through these images is that the church isn’t the building, but the people. The Lord can use tragedy as a tool for bringing his people together and reaching a community in need of the Good News. Grief and loss are powerful emotions, and as this church works through them they will identify in a real way with individuals who have walked through personal valleys of their own.
Sometimes it’s takes a tragedy to make us realize what’s truly important in life. I’ve seen pictures of church members hugging one another and weeping over their church building. It’s understandable. I’m sure there are members who are living with the loss of a place that has held special significance to them. Weddings, baptisms, and special services were held in that sanctuary. It’s incredibly sad. But, they still have each other. I’ll be hoping that they come together and “catch fire” with the power of the Holy Spirit. They will experience healing and growth with the sensitive leadership of their pastor. It will take time, but Hendricks Avenue will rise from the ashes to be stronger in their love for each other and for their community.