SUMMERVILLE, SC (WCSC) – Pastor John H. Hill arrived at First Emmanuel Baptist Church in Summerville around noon to begin preparing for his congregation’s spaghetti dinner and Bible study on Wednesday evening. He says he fired up the slow cooker and got to work before settling into his office to read the scriptures.
“I heard a knock on the door, there’s a guy trying to get my attention,” Hill said. “He said your building was on fire, you need to get out, and until then I didn’t know it was on fire,” Hill said.
It was a firefighter warning him of the flames. Dorchester County Fire Chief Tres Atkinson said when crews arrived Wednesday afternoon, about a quarter of the building was ablaze and smoking. Hill was the only one inside and got out safe and sound.
Within 45 minutes, firefighters brought the blaze under control. Adkinson says when the roof collapsed, it helped smother the fire. The church steeple is still standing but black with ash.
Hill said even just hours after the fire spread, half a dozen other faith leaders reached out to offer help and support.
“These things, you consider them a tragedy, and that’s…but if it brings a community together, I’m okay with that,” Hill said. “And it’s a matter of having faith. Who do you trust? Do you trust in man, or do you trust in God? And we choose to trust God.
Rodd Hibbard is the pastor of Hope Church in Summerville, just down the street. He was on the scene as soon as he heard about the fire. He says he and his wife suffered a fire years ago and know the pain of losing memories.
“It’s very difficult,” Hibbard said. “I’m very grateful that no one was hurt, but just knowing the emotion…and especially with the church, something that you are so closely connected to, the people of this church and what they do, especially Pastor John, I just want to make sure we’re here to pray for them and support them in any way we can.
Hill says he knows his congregation can get through this because it has struggled before. Hill suffered a heart attack last year, and despite being misdiagnosed, he was back in his community as soon as possible.
“God is in control,” Hill said. “We think sometimes he’s only in control when things are good, but he’s in control when things are bad.”
He says the next steps are to accept some help from neighbors and work out a plan with his parishioners to continue worship however they can. He wants to welcome anyone in the community to join the church.
“If you come to our church and run away without at least one or two people giving you a hug, you’ve walked out too quickly,” Hill said.
Hill says First Emmanuel Baptist Church was preparing to celebrate its 85th anniversary in October, so it will be difficult moving forward with the loss of the building. But he is hopeful that with much prayer and hard work, they will rebuild.
Hibbard says watching another church burn brought him back to the day he saw his house go up in flames, and he knows what it will take to recover from the damage. But he is convinced that the community will contribute to its realization.
“It’s going to take months, and it’ll never be the same again,” Hibbard said. “There are a lot of memories where people got married here, people probably had funerals here. There are many memories that are not there in physical form.
Hibbard says he and his church will be there every step of the way.
“The church is not a building; it’s a family,” says Hibbard. “It’s a group of believers coming together and immediately trying to figure out what we can do to make sure they can still come together as a family.”
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