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Fire ravages heart of campus at Christian college in Texas

TERRELL, Texas — The nerve center.
The heart of campus.
To the Southwestern Christian College community, the administration building that burned in the wee hours of a recent Sunday represented more than a three-story collection of bricks.
The 106-year-old structure, which housed the Texas Military Institute before Southwestern moved to this town 30 miles east of Dallas in 1949, was where students prayed and sang praises to God each weekday morning.
“I felt sad because a lot of memories are in this building for me personally,” said Anthony Johnson, a 22-year-old Bible major from San Antonio. “When I first got to Southwestern, I met a lot of friends on these steps. We used to sing at night out here on these steps.”
The steps and the skeletal outer walls of the 50,000-square-foot building are about all that remain after a Jan. 27 fire sent flames shooting as high as 150 feet in the air, said Jim Harper, the fire chief in this community of about 18,000 residents.
Besides the administration building, the fire that smoldered for days destroyed the adjacent student support services building. While the fire remains under investigation, what caused it may never be known, Harper said. Arson is not suspected.
The fire department estimated the total building damages and loss of contents at $1.8 million. Insurance should cover much of that amount, but rebuilding could cost up to $5.8 million, Southwestern officials said.
“People usually ask, ‘What can we do?’” said Jack Evans Sr., Southwestern’s president for 40 years. “And the answer is, ‘Look up. Leave it up to God.’
“But on Earth, what people can do is help us raise some money,” Evans added. “The bottom line is going to be recovery, and then it’ll be rebuilding, and anybody who wants to help us, we would certainly welcome it.”
Southwestern, originally known as the Southern Bible Institute in Fort Worth, is a historically black college with 227 students.
Its leaders say roughly half of the nation’s predominantly black Churches of Christ have ties — through a minister, elder, deacon or leader’s wife — to Southwestern.
Most students transfer to another Christian college, such as Abilene Christian or Oklahoma Christian, after two years, Evans said. However, Southwestern offers a four-year degree in biblical studies.
In an open letter, Natesha Wyrick Cathey, president of Southwestern’s national alumni association, characterized the fire as “a devastating moment in the history of our beloved school.”
But she voiced confidence that God will use “this temporary setback” for good.
Leading a Christian Chronicle reporter on a tour of the charred remains, Evans stressed that God “can bring the beauty out of the ashes,” a reference to Isaiah 61:3. With a laugh, he added, “We certainly have the ashes.”
The blaze erupted on a dark, foggy morning. The reddish-orange flames, which ordinarily would have been visible for miles, could be seen for only a couple of blocks.
Still, “it was quite spectacular to see,” said Harper, a 31-year firefighting veteran. He described the flames as the tallest he had ever seen.
Given the age of the building, it had a lot of wood, which served to fuel the fire, the chief said.
Something as simple as a heating unit left on could have started the fire, but that’s just speculation, he said.
Shocked students, who had been asleep in their dorm rooms, formed circles, held hands and prayed as they watched the buildings burn.
“It was emotional … a moment of shock,” said Sarina Harris, a 20-year-old sophomore from Memphis, Tenn. “You didn’t have too many words … you just stood there and watched it.”
Crisaundra Lydia, a 19-year-old freshman from Houston, said: “It was very hard to believe. The main thing everyone kept saying was that it just as easily could have been one of the dorms.”
Besides the second-floor Ben Foster Jr. Memorial Chapel Auditorium, the administration building included offices, classrooms, computer labs, the computer mainframe and the telephone switchboard. Thousands of student records also were kept in the building. Evans said many were in fireproof cabinets that the college recovered.
The chapel auditorium, which seated about 240, had been renovated in recent years and named after a 19-year-old student killed in a truck accident in 2000.
Ben Foster Sr., an administrator and Bible professor at Southwestern, also had a first-floor office and personal library in the burned building.
“I had just all kinds of treasured books and pictures of Ben Jr. and special papers he had written for me … that I was going to treasure for a lifetime,” Foster said.
While grieving over the fire, Foster said he hopes an even-larger auditorium in his son’s honor can be a part of a new administration building.
But he said, “It’s going to take an act of God and brothers and sisters working together in one accord in order for this to happen.”
Compared to the modern buildings on many Christian campuses, Southwestern’s facilities were lacking even before the fire, said Mark Rose, one of a handful of white students.
“There is just so little money that comes in from the larger, more affluent congregations,” said Rose, 40, a non-traditional student pursuing a Bible degree.
Rose, a father of four, is a deacon at the Eastridge church in Rockwall, Texas.
On the Sunday after the fire, he made a plea for members to help.
With no advance notice, the congregation gave $5,100 in a special contribution. He said he’d urge other congregations — white and black — to help Southwestern in its time of need.
Students interviewed on campus said they have no doubt the college will recover and emerge even stronger.
“We know that this was a setback for a setup,” said William White Jr., a 20-year-old sophomore from Kansas City, Kan. “A lot of memories went on in that building, but we can make new ones.”
Ryan Smith, a 19-year-old sophomore from Tulsa, Okla., agreed: “Every time we have a trial, we come together. Our test is going to turn into a testimony.”

  • Feedback
    I would like to clarify the portrayal of my comments regarding the state of the facilities at SwCC. The school is uniquely positioned to provide core education for those students that are seeking a college degree. For those students living in and around the DFW metroplex, this school offers a substantial financial savings over the larger, more well financed schools in our brotherhood. Facilities that are not as fancy, nor as spacious do not hinder the learning that goes on in this intimate setting. I would encourage any parent that is not sure their child is ready to leave the Metroplex to consider commuting to SwCC in the pursuit of their degree. The bible program is as solid as one could find anywhere! Our brotherhood has got to quit seeing things through the lens of “color” and begin embracing our country’s diversity. If we spent as much time working to be inclusive of all races as we do arguing over the semantics of worship… my goodness, what a testimony we would display to the world! I am the reigning Mr. Southwestern Christian College. I am proud to be part of a school that is dedicated to upholding the principles of New Testament Christianity as it forges forward. We will emerge from this earthly tragedy stronger, more efficient, and more importantly… less divided; capable of providing Christian education to a larger, diverse population.
    February, 19 2008

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