Wildfire destroyed their building, but not their spirit
Words from the hymn “God’s Family” proved especially poignant on a recent Sunday, as two Churches of Christ — one of which lost its building in the Nov. 28 wildfire that ravaged the popular resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn. — came together to worship God. MORE COVERAGE OF THE TENNESSEE WILDFIRES The song’s special meaning was evident on this Lord’s Day as more than 200 men, women and children assembled at the Sevierville Church of Christ — including two-dozen guests from the displaced Gatlinburg Church of Christ.
Not much remains of the Gatlinburg church’s building following massive wildfires that swept through the area. Several church members also lost their homes. (PHOTO USED WITH PERMISSION OF THE GATLINBURG CHURCH OF CHRIST)
“I’ve sang that song in many situations, but I experienced that song … in a way I never have before,” said Gatlinburg member David Barton, holding back tears. “While our number is small, God’s family is not small. And they have reached out to us … in ways that you can’t even begin to describe or appreciate.”
Just a few days earlier, residents of Gatlinburg — 14 miles south of Sevierville —awoke to a cloud of smoke and haze. Rain was overdue, and wildfires had reached the nearby Chimney Tops Mountain in neighboring Smoky Mountain National Park. Before the day finished, the fire would spread to the city, claiming more than a dozen lives and destroying hundreds of structures, including houses of worship. Rain would come in from the west, but not before the damage was done.
Rod Rutherford, minister for the Gatlinburg Church of Christ, sits with his wife, Brenda, during Sunday service at the Sevierville Church of Christ. (PHOTO BY NATHANIEL HOWARD)
On this cold, damp Sunday morning, members and visitors trickled in to worship at the Sevierville Church of Christ. If not for the fire, a similar picture would have unfolded at the Gatlinburg Church of Christ, a vibrant congregation with only 35 local members but an active outreach to visiting tourists. Minister Rod Rutherford preaches for the Gatlinburg congregation, which reaches the community with a radio and television ministry and often tops attendance of 150 during peak tourism season.
The Sevierville and Gatlinburg churches have long shared a close fellowship, Sevierville minister John Daniels said.
Daniels and the Sevierville congregation made the decision to open their building to the brothers and sisters affected by wildfires, not only for worship but as a temporary storage site for relief supplies. The Sevierville church even canceled a monthly potluck meal due to its fellowship hall filling up with boxes of food and other emergency provisions supplied by Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort. CLICK HERE FOR A MESSAGE FROM THE CHURCH REGARDING HOW YOU CAN HELP. Rutherford, the Gatlinburg minister, walked around the Sevierville church foyer passing out bulletins still featuring a cover picture of a beautifully landscaped property and a stately A-frame building.
Members of the Gatlinburg Church of Christ and the Sevierville Church of Christ worship together. (PHOTO BY NATHANIEL HOWARD)
Save for an emotional tension lingering just beyond the smiles and hugs, it seemed hard to realize that days earlier, the fire had destroyed the church’s 42-year-old building and the homes of several members.
Standing strong amid the trials, Gatlinburg members still showed up to worship their Lord.
“The church is the people. That’s New Testament Scripture right there, ” said Gatlinburg member Randy Vernon, who teaches a Bible class. “The building is just a convenience for us, and we’ll get our convenience back here in a few months.”
In a congregational meeting following the service, Gatlinburg church secretary Barton described an outpouring of relief from the church family in Sevierville and around the world.
The church had received calls and prayer from as far away as Oregon, Scotland and Puerto Rico, Barton said. Initial monetary contributions numbered close to $60,000 with final numbers expected to be much higher, he said — enough money for a 12-month lease on the building where the congregation planned to meet the next Sunday; enough money, coupled with insurance, to begin construction on a new building; and enough money to provide for members in need.
“It’s been overwhelming, the support that we’ve had,” said Lisa Tant Campbell, a Gatlinburg member who lost all her earthly possessions in the fire. “We’re very grateful for it and thankful. To God be the glory.”
With gift cards, checks and emergency supplies streaming in, Campbell, her family and other victims counted their blessings in the midst of grief and could not help but acknowledge the hand of God.
Judy Sortore, with granddaughter Annabelle, stand in the fellowship hall where supplies are being stored.“This is wonderful,” said Judy Sortore, holding her granddaughter Annabelle as she walked through a fellowship hall inundated with food, toiletries and miscellaneous supplies.
Sortore and her husband, Richard, lost their house and two connecting apartments where their son, daughter and their families had been living. Despite the loss, the Sortores still found themselves worshiping and thanking God for his provision.
“God has provided everything we needed,” Richard Sortore said. “It’s been a little difficult, but we all got out with our lives. All of our needs are met.”
As the lights went out in the Sevierville church building following the service, congregants returned to their homes and temporary places of shelter. A sense of peace prevailed as words of “God’s Family” kept echoing in the minds — and hearts — of those touched, but not overcome, by tragedy.
“And sometimes we laugh together, sometimes we cry. Sometimes we share together, heartaches and sighs. Sometimes we dream together of how it will be, when we all get to heaven, God’s family.”