It’s been nearly two weeks since Trinity Presbyterian Church in Alabama was gutted by a destructive fire. And in that time, Pastor Chris Duncan has seen church and community members drawn closer than ever before.
Church members have displayed a resilient spirit to trust in God and overcome the devastation, while the community has rallied around the congregation in its time of tribulation.
“It has been amazing,” Duncan said of the cooperative spirit he has seen from congregants and members of the community. “Our members have bonded together more closely, which has deeply enriched our fellowship, and people from all across the community are pitching in to help. We have been brought together by this tragedy, and it has made us closer, as a church and community.
“We say we believe in the sovereignty of God, well, this is our opportunity to truly demonstrate that. God continues to be a blessing in a difficult situation.”
Trinity is located in Opelika, an east-central Alabama town in Lee County just off Interstate 85 along the Georgia line, slightly northeast of Montgomery. It was built in 1973 and is celebrating its 40th year of ministry in the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA).
The church steeple took a direct hit from lightning on Saturday, July 13, sparking a fire that raged through the attic of the building for about an hour before firefighters received a call about the blaze.
Firefighters thought they had saved the sanctuary, but it turned out that even that area of the building was deemed a total loss by the insurance company, and the facility will have to be demolished. The fire consumed the church office, pastor’s office, nursery, kitchen, fellowship hall and library as well as the steeple and roof. Other areas of the structure suffered heavy smoke, heat and water damage.
Demolition of the church remains is scheduled to take place this week as the site is prepared for a new facility.
All told, the damage resulted in a total loss estimated to be a million dollars or more, though Trinity Christian School – also located on the Opelika campus to serve 190 students in grades K-12– was shielded from the fire’s fury as firefighters knocked back flames from the church building to preserve the educational structure.
Also spared was the grand piano in the sanctuary, as well as choir robes, hymn books and Bibles, the pastor’s pulpit, church’s communion plate and cup, a baptismal bowl and a brass cross.
In spite of the massive losses, Duncan is convinced the group of people at Trinity will turn their tragedy into a triumph by following God’s lead.
“I firmly believe we have the right group of people to deal with this, and they are proving that to be true,” he said. “We have a very well-grounded, mature congregation of believers who understand and appreciate the sovereignty of God. They are demonstrating their belief in that every day.”
While displaced from its normal house of worship, Trinity’s congregation of approximately 300 members, graciously has been offered the use of space at the Cultural Center – a former school built in 1929 – in Opelika by the City of Opelika and Envision Opelika to continue its ministry. Services will continue there on a long-term basis, and Sunday school classes will be offered again in coming weeks.
“It’s very providential it worked out the way it did,” Duncan said. “That location will meet our long-term needs until we finish rebuilding, and we’re very thankful for it.”
A number of churches in the area as well as individuals have reached out to offer support to Trinity’s congregation during its time of need, something not lost on Duncan and his membership.
“That’s been very encouraging,” Duncan said of help received from those outside the church. “When you lose everything, it helps you re-evaluate and re-prioritize. It takes you back to the Bible and each other, knowing that’s all we have right now. But faith and fellowship together as the Body of Christ are fundamental in times like these.”
The Sunday after the fire (July 14), Trinity’s congregation gathered for worship at the Health Resource Center of the East Alabama Medical Center, and Duncan told those in attendance that worship takes place where God is present, noting that He has a plan.
“No matter how things appear, the Lord is working out His purposes and His plans and is doing it for His glory and for our good,” Duncan said.
The pastor indicated that plans already are in the works to rebuild at the same site.
“The message I am hearing from the congregation is that we want to rebuild, so we’ve hit the ground running on that. Our plan is to rebuild,” Duncan said, adding that construction of a new facility could take up to a year to complete. “Until then, we will continue to worship on Sundays in our temporary home.”
Plans to celebrate four decades of ministry in Opelika also will continue to move forward. Duncan said a homecoming and anniversary celebration scheduled for Oct. 27 will take place as planned. He expects there to be a measure of somberness because of the loss of the church building, while anticipating more celebration in what God has done and will do.
“Right now, we’re all sort of in shock over what happened, but I think by the time we get (to Oct. 27), there will be more of a celebratory mood. I think the level of expectation will just keep snowballing as we go forward,” he said.
Duncan is reminded that the church is more than a building. It is the people who make up the Body of Christ. Still, there is sadness in losing a place that has meant so much to so many for so long.
“We understand that the church is its people and their faith in Christ, but on the other hand the building is very important,” Duncan said. “It’s the place where people have been married, baptized, buried. It has a dear place in our hearts, and it was sort of like a funeral as we watched it burn. It’s OK to mourn that loss and say goodbye to something that has been a sacred place to us.”
Now, the Trinity congregation will look to the future and what God has in store
“There’s been a mix of sorrow and mourning. People are seeing this is a difficult and tragic circumstance, and that’s true,” Duncan said. “But we know in our heart of hearts that God is at work here, and we’re encouraged by that. There’s a mix of anticipation and excitement of what God will do next.”