by Joe Dennis
Exactly five months after a fire destroyed their historic sanctuary, members of Oconee Street United Methodist Church gathered yesterday on church grounds at Oconee and Poplar Streets in Athens to celebrate a new beginning.
“There’s something about this spot,” said the Rev. Lisa Caine in a brief sermon at a groundbreaking ceremony for the new church sanctuary. “There are roots here, memories here, a cloud of witnesses that surrounds us even as we come together in this moment. This is holy ground for this church, past and present.”
Approximately 100 church members, friends and dignitaries attended the ceremony, filling spaces from a small patch of grass outside the fenced-off construction zone to across Poplar Street up a hill to the church’s parsonage. With two flutists providing music, the choir sang hymns focused on faithfulness and service, a common theme of Oconee Street UMC in its 143-year history.
“When the mortar is poured and the bricks are laid here — it will not be the foundation of this church,” said Athens Mayor Nancy Denson. “You are the foundation of this church. The resilience of this faith community is absolutely amazing.”
Church members recounted the past, present and future of the church in “A Litany of Remembrance and Hope,” written for the groundbreaking service.
“From its beginnings, our church has always been committed to social justice, advocating for people who experience discrimination of all kinds,” said longtime church member Steve Williams. “Oconee Street United Methodist Church has stood as a beacon of life and hope for members, visitors, neighbors and especially those with no home of their own.”
Music director and building committee chair Maxine Easom expressed optimism for the future of the church.
“Today we are ready. We have shed our final tears; our eyes are clear; our minds and hearts are set,” she said. “We will rebuild. Today a new chapter begins. New memories created. New spaces become sacred.”
Church members were then invited to grab a shovel and participate in the groundbreaking, led by Lucille Hancock, a church member for nearly 90 years. Attendees were also given a piece of stone from the former sanctuary and were asked to place the stones in a bin, which will be used to form concrete for the new sanctuary. The new church is expected to take 18 months to build.
“Part of the old will be carried on into the new,” Caine said. “Our new church will soon be rising out of the ashes … and we will all be watching, waiting, wondering and anticipating how these new walls will once again surround and serve all of God’s people with love and grace.”