Originally published on Athens Patch on April 16, 2013
More than 20 members of Oconee Street United Methodist Church stood yards away from the doorstep of their church, located on the hill between Oconee and Oak Street, as firefighters fought a blaze that engulfed the historic sanctuary.
“I feel like a part of me has died,” said Maxine Easom, the church’s music supervisor. “I have been a part of this church since I was a born.”
The blaze — the cause of which is yet unknown but no foul play is suspected — completely destroyed the 111-year-old main sanctuary. This morning, Easom, along with several other church members including Pastor Lisa Caine, surveyed the damage. The ceiling is gone from the main sanctuary, as a large gold cross still hangs firmly on the wall behind the altar amidst downed beams, broken glass and torched pews.
“With that sanctuary and that altar railing – you can feel the cloud of witnesses and hear the saints who have gone before us and made the church the place that it is today,” said Caine, who has served as pastor of the church since 2001.
Oconee Street UMC has a long history in Athens. Founded in 1871 with just 16 members, the church moved to its current location in 1903. Over the past half century, the church has been known for its strong support of social justice and service within the community. In 1980, the Rev. Carolyn Morris became pastor of the church, making Oconee Street the first Methodist church in the area to have a woman serve as pastor. A decade later under the leadership of the Rev. Ted Staton, the church partnered with Athens Urban Ministry and opened the city’s first lunchtime soup kitchen, Our Daily Bread. Most recently, the church has raised thousands of dollars and offered hundreds of service hours for local charities, including the Athens Nurses Clinic, the Interfaith Hospitality Network and the Northeast Georgia Food Bank.
After checking out the damage, the members discussed an action plan for the immediate future. Church records, insurance company contacts, Sunday services and even choir practice became the topic of conversation. Held at the church’s former parsonage — now used as a workspace for Action Ministries – church members filtered in one-by-one, all wanting to help in some way.
“This church has served the community for more than 140 years,” said Sharon Pendley, lay leader of the church. “The community looks to it and relies on it for the help that it can’t get anywhere else.”
As organizers for Action Ministries developed immediate plans for to continue offering meals through Our Daily Bread, church members started plans to recover and rebuild, but they were far from alone. From construction services to temporary church locations, Caine was inundated with calls offering space, support and service.
“I have been so overwhelmed with the calls of love, affection, encouragement and support that we have received from the Athens community,” Caine said.
One such call came from Young Harris United Methodist Church, a congregation similar in size and scope to Oconee Street. The church offered space on its Prince Avenue campus for Oconee Street to temporarily hold Sunday services and Sunday school classes.
Allison Floyd, children and youth programs coordinator for Young Harris, said the decision to help Oconee Street was easy. “Many of us have been in Oconee Street UMC’s kitchen volunteering with Our Daily Bread, so we know what a special place it is and what good work goes on there,” she said. “Anything we could do to comfort the Oconee Street congregation and allow them to regroup, our congregation wanted to do.”
With a temporary new home secured, Oconee Street UMC leaders are now looking to the long-term. A special website — www.rebuildoconeestreetumc.org — has been set up to accept donations and provide progress updates. Donations may also be made in person at any Athens First Bank and Trust location, made payable to “Oconee Street UMC Building Fund.”
Although the fire destroyed the sanctuary and the education wing of the church is heavily damaged with water and smoke, Caine has no doubt the church will persevere.
“Oconee Street is all right,” she said. “Our sanctuary is gone, but we as a congregation are strong and have the trust and faith to go on, because Athens can’t be without a church on the hill.”