DUDLEY — It had been two weekends since a fire gutted their house of worship. Sunday morning, members of the uprooted, displaced congregation arrived carload by carload — some a tad late as their preacher would gently remind them from the pulpit — at another sanctuary 13 miles out in the country.
Central Baptist Church of Dublin was now in session on Old Macon Road, five or so miles north of Dudley and U.S. 80, in the First Rehoboth Baptist Association Center.
Central’s charred church home on Smith Street over in Dublin was destroyed Aug. 13 in what investigators have said was an intentionally set fire.
Members at Sunday’s service said the location of their interim meeting place made it hard for some of the church’s 125 members to attend.
Sunday morning, the adult Sunday-school class convened in the sanctuary: 10 parishioners among the 26 pews.
Before church began, member Emma Cross, a retired teacher’s aide, referred to the hardship of being burned out of her church as “a test.”
“You go where you have to go. ... I don’t know what happened, but I believe God doesn’t allow anything to be taken from you that he doesn’t give you something better,” Cross said.
“When I got the call (about the fire) it was right after it happened. ... It was one of the saddest things I’ve heard in my life. I’m 70 years old and to hear the words, ‘Emma, Central is on fire ...’ I will never, ever forget those words.”
In the parking lot, 11-year-old Isaiah Harmon kicked at a chip of gravel on the pavement. “We had fun in that other church,” he said.
Back inside, when it was time for church, worshipers sang, “Blessed Assurance.” A woman in the front pew clapped while they did. Then they sang words of a hymn that seemed appropriate: “Be encouraged no matter what’s going on. He’ll make it all right, but you gotta stay strong.”
By the time the Rev. Ellis Carswell was into his sermon, 40 or so worshipers had made it to the church in the Laurens County countryside.
“Stay together,” Carswell said. “Don’t let anything shake you or tear you or pull you away from the word of God. We do know, y’all, that bricks and mortar is not the church. We know the metal roofs, parking lots, all of that, is not the church. The church is in the heart of the believers.”
He spoke of the apostle Paul, who was “shipwrecked, snake-bitten, put in prison. ... But it seemed like Paul said, ‘Bring it on. ... Bring it on.’’’
In a prayer, the pastor asked that whoever might be responsible for the fire be delivered “from that illness.”
“And help them just come forward and say as Jonah said when he was getting ready to be cast overboard, ‘I’m the cause of the problem,’ ... to be able to acknowledge, Lord, so that no other congregation would have to go through the suffering we have dealt with,” Carswell said. “We don’t want him destroyed, we want him saved.”
The pastor also reminded worshipers of where their congregation got its start in the mid ’90s, and that even though their latest home, one they’d been in for the past half a decade was gone, hope remained for yet another home.
“I can remember the storefront down on Jefferson Street. The Lord was with us there,” Carswell said. “I can remember how he brought us to the Smith Street address, and I can remember how he brought us to this address, and someday I’ll be able to remember how he took us and placed us in something that is better.”