I can get there before you, I yelled as a group of us ran out to the sign by the road. When my friends and I got there, we were a little winded and starting to break a sweat.
Before we could even catch our breath, we raced back to the front of the church where our parents were visiting with each other after the service.
Dont get all hot and sweaty in your good clothes, I heard my mother say as we raced once again back to the sign. Back and forth we ran. I suppose it was to release some of the energy that we had held captive during the service.
Even though I was just a little boy, I can still see the sign that was lit from within just as crystal clear as if it were yesterday. There were red colored bricks built around the base of it providing the perfect spot to perch for just a second. In our minds, the sign was miles away from the actual church, but in reality it was much closer.
Bethesda Baptist Church was printed on the sign in bold black letters. It was the church I attended from when I was a baby until I moved to Atlanta to begin college. The burning of the church buildings almost two weeks ago has made all the years in between come into sharp focus. Although it was sold years ago to another congregation, in my heart, it will always be Bethesda.
Just about everything Ive done since learning of its destruction has caused me to conjure up a memory of the wonderful and happy times at Bethesda. I was filming a segment for macon.com the other day showing how to create beautifully lifelike camellias out of paper and immediately I was taken back to the many Sweetheart Banquets we held in the social hall in honor of Valentines Day.
My memory flashed back to creating a huge heart out of small pieces of tissue paper in various shades of red, pink and white that were folded and glued to a large cardboard heart-shaped frame. It was designed to provide a backdrop for photographs of the Queen and King of Bethesda for that year. I smiled as I remembered all the fun times.
One year for the Sweetheart Banquet, we transformed the social hall into Venice, Italy, and another year we visited Hawaii -- or as close as we would get to Hawaii back then. Paper backdrops, crepe paper streamers, some vivid imagination and lots of elbow grease helped us to pretend an ordinary social hall actually had gondoliers or a sandy beach.
Well, actually, the year we decorated with the Hawaiian theme, we did haul buckets and buckets of sand into the room. It sounded like such a great idea until the next day when all that sand had to be removed!
As I was traveling down the streets of my memory, I came upon a good time at every turn. I remembered more weddings, cantatas, coronations, sermons and revivals than I could even possibly count that happened under the roof of that church.
Not to mention the endless gatherings that centered around food. Homemade and from-scratch recipes lovingly prepared by the flock were always mouth-watering. I especially remember the Sunday night homemade ice cream suppers we held during the hot summer months. There was no doubt the people of Bethesda sure knew how to cook. Many of the recipes from that part of my life are fondly captured in my cookbooks.
I remembered Vacation Bible School, Sunbeams, Sunday School, training union and youth retreats. I remembered being taught not to run through the church halls, talk during sermons and leave trash thrown around. I remember it being instilled in me to be reverent because it was Gods house and deserved our respect. Thats why I find it so difficult to grasp the fact that it was purposely torched by someones hand.
Back in 2005, the former Bethesda Baptist Church had already taken another huge blow that caused immense heartbreak for the original congregation. The larger and more modern sanctuary we had all worked so hard to build, collapsed after standing proudly for almost 30 years. At the time, it was unbelievable.
But I will have to say that as hard as that was to accept, losing the original buildings to fire was much harder for me. It was like closing the book on a chapter of my youth that was incredibly special. In a flash, I was once again reminded that nothing lasts forever.
As I looked at all the photos that emerged over the days that followed its burning, my heart was broken. Underneath all that destruction, rubble and soot was a church that once housed a congregation who had a special bond with each other. Lifelong friendships were made in those pews. Within its walls, I met the girl Id end up marrying. No amount of fire fueled by accelerants can diminish those memories. Bricks and mortar may crumble and be destroyed, but what we had there lives on in the hearts of all of us who attended Bethesda.
If you had told that little boy who ran back and forth from the sanctuary to the sign all those years ago that anything like these events would have ever occurred, I wouldnt have believed you. To me, our church was indestructible.
Little did I know when I was making memories and carefully storing them away for later, how precious they would be. It was a special time in a special place with very special people. Nothing can ever take that away.
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