Rebuilt Bethlehem brings joy
By Brian Koonce
CROSSTOWN – On September 24, 2006, two days after a tornado ripped through the building that housed Bethlehem Baptist Church, Pastor Steve Francis had a simple message to his congregation. He preached out of Acts 2:46, on how the early church was in one accord.
“That’s what we have to be,” he told the church. “We have to come together in one accord and know that this is what God has done for us. We know that God has a better plan.”
Two years later, the Bethlehem Baptist Church is of one accord, and sure enough, God had a better plan. The church recently dedicated its new building, one that Francis says surpasses the old in every way and will help them reach their community.
“We’re in a mission field now,” he said.
That field is white for the harvest, too. The new church building was dedicated Oct. 9, and already the church has baptized four new members. This in a church that averages 35 in Sunday School and 50 in worship.
“People were ready for something to happen,” Francis said. “And now we have the room to grow.”
Though the church only gained about 600 square feet in the rebuilding, Francis said the new structure is laid out better. By moving to a site across the street from the original, the church also gained a larger parking lot and (in an important item to older members) was able to build all on one level instead, as opposed to the three stories in the original building.
“It looks humongous compared to what we had,” Francis said. “Our auditorium is much roomier and open now. It has a good, warm, homey feel to it. ”
Things didn’t look too homey in 2006 after the tornado destroyed the church and 61 other homes in town, including the homes of 13 church members. The parsonage where Francis lived was reduced to a concrete slab. It was a strange, new, frightening frontier for Francis. The church began meeting in the Perryville Masonic Lodge, and he had to begin his life over from scratch.
“It was a funny emptiness,” he said. “It’s changed a lot of my ideas about materialism. You no longer have it, and you have no choice. But looking back, there were 62 dwellings destroyed and not one loss of life. Eighty percent of those homes had at least one person in it when the tornado hit and there were only broken bones, scratches and scrapes. It could have been so much worse.”
But, as Francis said, God had a better plan. Francis was also correct that “being of one accord” would be essential to the church’s rebirth. The church decided the best course of action was that they would do every bit of labor they could possibly do by themselves, hiring professionals to do only the most complicated of jobs. Beginning in 2007, they did just that, hanging all the drywall and refinishing the pews themselves.
“We did it all ourselves except brick laying,” he said. “Someone was there every single day doing something. There were some points where you felt like just hiring someone to get it done, but we had some really dedicated people. They took care of it. We’re pretty proud of it to say the least.”
Francis said the ordeal has given the members of Bethlehem a new building, a new sense of purpose and a new desire to serve God’s kingdom.
“I’ve seen the people become more dedicated and more committed than ever,” he said. “Before, many were hit and miss and didn’t really take part in anything. Now, they get in the middle of things. It has changed lives more than just a building program. There’s a new sense of commitment and ownership.”
The church’s can-do attitude spilled over onto their pastor, giving him a new understanding of the command to “count it all joy.”
At the dedication, Francis told the crowd, “I don’t care what else happens, I’m going to have a ball.”
The church decided not to rebuild the parsonage due to costs, but put a trailer on that land. The front steps to the old building are all that is left across the road from the new facility. Eventually, they plan to build a pavilion there for picnics and other church events.
“We’ve got more in store,” Francis said. “We’re not done.”