BETHLEHEM, N.C. (AP) — It was on a Saturday — July 18, 2015 — when a sudden thunderstorm struck Bethlehem. A few patrons of the Bojangle’s restaurant were just finishing their lunch when they heard the loud boom. One of them looked across the street and saw smoke coming from the church steeple. He called 911. Bethlehem Baptist Church was on fire.
“We lost over two thirds of our sanctuary and classrooms in that fire,” said Wayne Caviness, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist.
“But the local fire departments were there within minutes. There was hardly anything they could do to keep the old wooden rafters from burning.”
Caviness and his congregation did not skip a beat. The next day Sunday, services were held at the local elementary school.
“Everyone knows a church is not a building,” he said. “A church is its people. We had become an Exodus people is what we experienced.”
The congregation would not formally hold a worship service in the ruins of the old church until Christmas 2015, when the fellowship hall was safe enough to gather into.
Renovations have continued, but it hasn’t been until this month that new iron frames arrived on site to begin rebuilding the sanctuary.
“It took this long just to negotiate with the insurance company,” said Dwayne Simmons, chairman of the building committee.
In the end it will cost $5.5 million to rebuild, Simmons said.
“Even then, we are needing to start a capital campaign to get through all this.”
The sanctuary is not expected to be completed until 2019.
“The saddest part for me,” Simmons said, “was watching the fire move back and seeing the stained glass windows exploding one by one. It was a day to feel numbness and disbelief.”
Simmons would spend the rest of the day once the storm blew over and as the day was getting hotter handing out bottled water to the elderly and young who also could not believe their church now lay in ashes.
“It has been a difficult journey,” Caviness said. “But God has been faithful. God is doing something unique in us through this tragedy.
“The community has been very supportive of us, and as we rebuild we want to be more available to them.”
Caviness talks about a new family life center that will feature a basketball court, a soccer field and a walking track. These will be open to the public.