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Congregations join together to repair what Floyd put asunder

Posted: Friday, September 15, 2000

LAWRENCE, N.C. (AP) -- When the ceiling-high floodwaters receded from the Batts Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, members discovered that a century and a half of history had floated away.

The ancient pulpit Bible, old photos and books in the brick church north of Princeville were destroyed by Hurricane Floyd's floods. Half a dozen coffins were unearthed from the low-lying cemetery adjoining the rural crossroads church.

But unlike Job in the Old Testament, the church's 60 adult members didn't pause to seek an explanation from God.

''I don't think we wasted time saying why. We began to think, 'What do we do to rebuild?''' said Sandra Jones, a member at Batts Chapel for 40 years. ''God has taken care of us and he will continue to do so.''

Like Batts Chapel, dozens of churches stricken by Floyd a year ago found the strength to thrive -- not just survive -- holding services in the buildings of other churches or with other congregations. A year later, the congregations are stronger and eager to minister to their home communities again.

''We saw the mighty hand of God at work. ... We've come out of it much stronger,'' said the Rev. Pat Kilby, pastor of Adamsville Baptist Church in Goldsboro, which had up to $200,000 in damages after a foot of rain covered its Sunday school classrooms and fellowship hall last Sept. 16.

Floyd brought up to 20 inches of rain, covering homes and businesses in the region in several feet of water. The storm was blamed for $6 billion in damages and 52 deaths in North Carolina.

Exactly how many churches were damaged in Floyd's aftermath is unclear. Dozens of Methodist, Southern Baptist and Episcopal congregations received help from their denominations. More than 100 congregations -- many small or independent -- were helped through the innovative Church2Church program.

The state Department of Crime Control and Public Safety created the program as a clearinghouse where distressed congregations could be matched with other churches ready to help them rebuild. In the weeks following the storm, Church2Church received more than 400 calls.

''We were totally overwhelmed,'' said John Williams, who directed the program. ''It turned out to be a larger need and a larger outpouring than we ever believed.''

Seven Springs Baptist Church resumed services at its small sanctuary three months after the floods, thanks to workers and money from congregations in Shelby, Indian Trail and Pittsboro.

''It wouldn't have happened without the Church2Church program,'' said the Rev. Ashley Summerlin, pastor at Seven Springs.

Predominantly white St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Raleigh and Olive Chapel Baptist Church in Apex were matched with historically black Batts Chapel, which had completed thousands of dollars in renovations just days before the storm.

Sixty people from the three congregations gathered on a Saturday in November to begin rebuilding. It took eight people to remove waterlogged pews. A piano that had been submerged fell to pieces.

''When we walked in the door, nothing had been touched,'' said Kevin Pease, an Olive Chapel member and remodeling contractor. ''We gutted the whole place in the day.''

The bulk of the renovations didn't begin until March, when the building dried out completely. The three churches worked together on 12 Saturdays through last month, hammering in new wallboard, laying carpet and painting.

Flood insurance helped pay to fix classroom space and the fellowship hall, but not the sanctuary, Jones said. The church had to borrow to complete the renovations.

Batts Chapel members, who had been meeting nearby, returned to their sanctuary Aug. 13.

''It was just tremendously emotional,'' Jones said. ''I was just about to burst. I was filled up. I can't find any other way to describe it.''

The three congregations plan to celebrate the return with a dinner on church grounds Saturday -- the anniversary of Floyd's arrival.

At Adamsville, Kilby found it hard at first to accept help, especially because the church had been financially independent for decades.

There, too, strangers spent Saturdays knocking out rotting wallboard and repairing toilets -- which taught Kilby a lesson.

''God uses other people. It's easy to give but it's hard to receive. It was a hard thing for us to do,'' he said after a recent Wednesday night service.

Sunday school classes and potluck dinners resumed in the repaired education wing in March. An anonymous donor in western North Carolina has agreed to pay $20,000 to repair a youth classroom space and lounge.

The flooding put priorities in focus, said Jim Dixon, an Adamsville member.

''It helped people put their lives in order,'' Dixon said. ''I think a lot of them were awed to the fact that you could lose it all in a moment.''

A year later, the futures of many churches remain unclear. More than 20 congregations decided to relocate or start over, according to Church2Church. In Princeville, the town hardest hit by the flooding, eight churches have yet to return to their buildings, said Kim Burwell, a town spokeswoman.

Gateway Church of Heaven for All People is meeting again in Princeville, while St. Luke's Church of Christ and Macedonia Baptist Church are completing new buildings, said the Rev. James Brown, St. Luke's pastor.

It took months before the old building at St. Luke's could be razed. St. Luke's also had to get approval for a loan for a new $1.2 million complex.

''Depression set in for some members after seeing the old building stand for so long,'' Brown said. Now the foundation has been laid and plumbers have installed pipes. The 350 congregation members, 80 percent of them left homeless by flooding, hope to return to the new church next spring.

''I tell people, 'God can put this mess back together,''' Brown said. ''I believe it's going to look even better than it was before.''

End Adv for Friday, Sept. 15



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