Church holds service outdoors after Saturday fire

Church holds service outdoors after Saturday fire

DANVILLE — A day after a fire destroyed the sanctuary of the Ridgeview Baptist Church in Danville, about 250 members and a few guests gathered together on the church grounds for a late-Sunday-morning worship service.

People, from young to old, sat in folding chairs and at picnic tables under a large pavilion nestled in the woods just north of the church building, while others sat nearby in lawn chairs, on blankets and on the side of a hill. They sang songs of worship, prayed, took communion and an offering and listened to Pastor Mark Keyser reflect on the fire, what they as Christians and a church can take away from the incident and where they will go from here.

Keyser, the senior minister, told the congregation that the fire apparently was caused by lightning during the thunderstorms that passed through the area late Friday night. A neighbor reported seeing lightning strike the building, at 3838 N. Vermilion St., around 11:30 or 11:45 p.m.

Firefighters said the bolt took out the building's alarm system on impact, Keyser said. So, no one was aware that a fire was smoldering until around 3:15 a.m. on Saturday when a passerby called 911 to report that he smelled smoke, and another reported seeing flames coming from the roof.

Board chairman Bill Stuckemeyer said damage has been estimated at $750,000 to $1 million, but church leaders won't know for sure until insurance adjusters survey the damage.

"An event like this makes us think, 'Where is the Lord at this time?" Keyser told members, some of whom gasped or teared up when they saw the sanctuary covered in thick, black soot and smelled the smoke and char still heavy in the air.

"Couldn't God have done something or struck the trees instead?" the minister continued. "Is God upset with us? Is this God's judgment? Was he asleep at the wheel? What I think is that if God protected us from everything like this, how would we be able to relate to anyone who has had a setback? How would we be able to share with others how he works in our lives? Just like Job, our best opportunity to glorify God is when we're facing adversity, when we're at our weakest."

Keyser pointed to a passage in the Bible, Acts 11:19-21, about a transformation in the early church. After Stephen was martyred for his teachings and Christians were being persecuted, some went out and began sharing God's word beyond the Jews with the gentiles.

"The hand of God was with them, and a great many turned to the Lord," Keyser said. "He was using this disruption in their life to send them on their next mission, and Christianity went from a small sect of Jews to a worldwide movement. What does this have to do with us? From my perspective, this fire happened, so he can open our eyes to new things and lead us to new opportunities for outreach. Where do we go from here? We have to wait patiently for the Lord to lead us. But I have no doubt that God will lead us through because God is good, and his love endures."

Stuckemeyer said the congregation — which has 600 members, half of whom are active — celebrated its 60th anniversary in April. Its current building is 20 years old.

But the sanctuary, its stained glass windows, the baptistry, the large wooden cross on the wall, isn't the church, he said.

"The congregation is," Stuckemeyer said, adding he was thankful that no one was injured. "If it had been a week later, we would have had about 30 youth in the building for an overnight lock-in."

Stuckemeyer praised firefighters for their efforts.

"They did an exceptional job," he said, adding they were able to contain the fire to the sanctuary. The rest of the building only suffered smoke damage. "We had all of the doors to the sanctuary closed. They're fire-rated. They tell us if those doors had been left open, we wouldn't have a roof and that whole part of the building would have been destroyed."

Stuckemeyer said the massive cleanup will get underway today, and leaders will meet to determine the next steps, including where to hold services and what to do about special events such as a Father's Day brunch.

He said staff will do their best to get updates to members and the public via email, Facebook and other social media sites and the media on a timely basis.

Both Keyser and Stuckemeyer said they're grateful for the "overwhelming" community support. No less than 10 area churches and other venues have offered to let the church use their facility for services and other activities, while others have offered prayers and other help.

While Stuckemeyer was surprised that the news spread so quickly, he's not surprised by the concern.

"Danville is a very caring and giving community," he said.

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