By Kara Witherow, Editor
Even as they mourn the loss of their church building, members of Calvary United Methodist Church are facing the future with faith and hope.
In the early morning hours of Thursday, September 29, fire spread quickly through the 57-year-old church, located on busy South Main Street in Swainsboro.
“‘The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.’ May God bless us all as we continue to be the Church,” was posted on Calvary UMC’s website by pastor Rev. Nick Hazelton in the days immediately following the fire that decimated the church. Taken from hymn 558 of “The United Methodist Hymnal,” the words articulate the hope that many in the congregation feel in the midst of their grief.
“Very early in the morning on the day of the fire those who were present gathered in a circle and spent some time in prayer,” Rev. Hazelton said. “We affirmed that what we’ve lost is a building … but we can’t say ‘just a building’ because it’s not just a building. It’s a place where sacred memories were made, so we’re dealing with that.”
Pat Bedingfield, the church’s lay leader, has been a member of Calvary UMC since its 1954 inception. She was devastated to get the call and learn that her beloved church was on fire.
Deeply grieved by the complete loss of the church, she and others are determined to pick up the pieces and move forward.
“The determination of everybody is that we will not go backwards,” she said. “We will continue in the way we have always continued. We will do what is before us to do. We will do it pleasantly and in unity.”
One of the things the church is continuing to do as planned is to host their second annual pumpkin patch festival fundraiser, the proceeds of which benefit two local charities. Being held October 10 through October 29, the pumpkin patch is located at nearby Hillcrest Baptist Church, which has generously granted Calvary UMC the use of their front yard.
“The question was asked whether or not we would have the pumpkin patch, and unanimously the answer was, ‘Yes, we must,’” Rev. Hazelton said. “We must show the community and we must affirm to ourselves that this fire is not enough to stop our church, that our spirit can’t be broken by this.”
The pumpkin patch’s slogan is “We’re moving on! Calvary United Methodist Church, a church on the move.” Bedingfield says that now an appropriate slogan for the entire church is “We’re moving on.”
“Seeing everyone work and prepare for the pumpkin patch I begin to feel that there are bigger and better things in the future for us,” she said. “I see a future that’s only bright. If I can move beyond what I feel today as far as the loss and look outward and upward, there’s no limit to where the church can go and how it can minister to lives in the future.”
The Swainsboro community, the Dublin district and the entire South Georgia Conference have ministered to the church community, leaders say. The response has been generous and overwhelming.
“This is a tragedy, but there’s been a tremendous outpouring by not only the Swainsboro community and the surrounding areas, but from all over the conference,” said Rev. Denise Walton, Dublin District Superintendent. “Prayers and offers of volunteers and support have continued to pour in. They have surrounded the church and the pastor and have offered support and care.”
That support and care have lifted the congregation’s spirits, Rev. Hazelton said.
“One thing that has rallied the people of the church is the outpouring of love and community support that we’ve seen. It has come from everywhere.”
Everywhere, it seems, including the grocery store parking lot.
A church member told Rev. Hazelton that, in the days immediately following the fire, she saw a group of women standing in a circle in the Harvey’s grocery store parking lot. It was obvious that they were praying, and as she walked past, she overheard them praying for Calvary UMC.
“That sort of thing galvanizes us,” he said.
Bedingfield says that she’s been inundated with calls and emails and offers of support.
“I step into local stores and they’re chasing me down telling me that they’re praying for us and asking what they can do, trying to give me money and checks, asking if they can loan us songbooks,” she said. “There’s no end to it, it’s overwhelming. That, to me, that is the one thing that most says that Christ is alive and well in the community. Our needs are being met and I don’t know of anything that we’ve got to have at this moment to make the next few weeks possible.”
The case is currently being investigated by the Swainsboro Fire and Police Departments, the State Fire Marshals, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations and other agencies. While the church is in the very initial stages of recovery, Rev. Hazelton said that the church intends to rebuild.
“Our full intention is to rebuild, and I think our full intention is to rebuild on the same site,” he said. “I don’t think anyone wants to move to another place … I think our people and the community need to see us re-grow right there. We have to make that statement and that affirmation.”
In the meantime, Swainsboro First United Methodist Church has opened its doors to Calvary UMC’s regular Sunday morning worship services and ministries. Services will be held at their normal times in Swainsboro First UMC’s social hall.
Despite their suffering, Bedingfield says that she and the rest of the congregation are staying positive.
“In the midst of horrors, in the midst of sorrow, Christ shines through if we give Him the opportunity,” she said. “I’m looking forward to more blessings tomorrow than we had in our yesterday.”
The telephone number listed in the conference and district directories for Calvary United Methodist Church remains the same: 478-237-2191. Rev. Nick Hazelton may be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.