Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on April 19, 2013.
by The Rev. Lisa Caine, pastor of Oconee Street UMC
On Monday night my world changed — mine and the world of about 140 other folks known as Oconee Street United Methodist Church. Our sanctuary caught fire about 10 p.m., and such a fierce blaze there was. In the morning, smoke was still rising through the debris as fire fighters kept a watchful eye. The roof of the sanctuary is caved in. The steeple that faithfully looked out over Athens from its high vantage point is a skeleton. The bell has fallen from the bell tower, but Monday night as water — more than 100,000 gallons, I’m told — played over its surface, the old bell gave its last salute to our community and it tolled its goodbye.
Peeking through the broken-out windows of the sanctuary reveals that some things remain — the cross on the back wall behind the pulpit still stands. The pulpit itself is still there, and the altar railing — where people for 143 years have knelt to pray and to receive communion — looks pretty much intact.
In this time of loss, perhaps you will allow me a brief reminiscence. Oconee Street United Methodist Church has been a part of Athens since its founding in 1871. Originally, the building was located on Oconee Street near Broad Street, on the other side of the Oconee River and closer to downtown. In 1903, the old church building was moved board by board to its present location at the corner of Oconee and Poplar streets and lovingly reconstructed. And from that location, it has been a beacon to the community, serving various needs with willing and generous hearts since the early 1900s. Since 1989, it has been the home of Our Daily Bread, Athens’ largest and oldest soup kitchen. More than 50,000 meals were served last year under the direction of Action Ministries Athens Inc. Oconee Street is a small church in numbers, but nowhere will you find a bigger heart or greater desire to serve Christ and community.
The outpouring of support and comfort from the Athens community has been overwhelming. And we are so grateful for the many messages of condolence and love. Mr. Roger’s mother was right, when she told him to look for the helpers in times of trouble. There is no end to helpers in Athens, and we thank God for them.
Oconee Street United Methodist Church is, as one former pastor and current member has put it, down but not out. A new building will rise from the ashes of the old. As attached as we are to our old and graceful sanctuary, we know that the church is not a building but the people. The building may be gone, but our ministry and mission are alive and well, and we go forward trusting in God’s goodness and the future that awaits us. We are assured by the words of Isaiah 41:10, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be afraid, for I am your God. I will strengthen you; I will help you; I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.”
Thanks be to God, whose promises never fail.