When the Oconee Street United Methodist Church went up in flames on the evening of April 15, the fire took down more than just the building. Without a building, the congregation and programs held by the church have been forced to move.
Oconee Street United Methodist Church stood for over a century and has about 100 members.
Though the building is beyond repair, members of the church are holding together.
“We’re trying to be as normal as we can be in our abnormal circumstance. So we’re having our worship services ... Sunday school for our kids, choir practice and those things that you normally associate with church life,” said Reverend Lisa Caine. “We’re doing our best to keep on keeping on.”
Members of the church have been holding services in the indoor basketball court at Young Harris Memorial United Methodist Church.
“We have been so fortunate that Young Harris Church, and some other facilities around as well have offered space to us, really from less than 24 hours Young Harris offered us space at their church, and we really appreciate them,” Caine said. “So we’re just taking it a week at a time right now, but they have been very generous to us.”
Members of the Oconee Street Church and Athens community held a vigil in April to honor the church.
Caine said that the helpfulness of the community has meant a lot to her and the church. She said the support came from community members, other churches and former members of the church.
“The community has really been overwhelming. I can’t even tell you how many emails and notes and phone calls that I have received, and not only I’ve received but other members of our congregation have received from people,” Caine said. “I talked today to the widow of a former pastor, who was pastor in the 1960s, so it’s just been amazing all the folks who have reached out to us.”
Caine said that the church plans to rebuild on the same property, but that could take up to a year. She also said that she would like to see the church modernize without sacrificing its history.
“I guess what I’d like to have would be the best of the old and the best of the new. The church is 143 years old, and so, parts of the church are very traditional and they have been on that hill for a very long time ... so I’m not too interested in changing the outside,” Caine said. “But of course, we want as many of the new innovations and comforts and facilities as we can fit into that space.”
Besides the regular church services, Oconee Street was home to Our Daily Bread, a program by Action Ministries Athens that provides breakfast, lunch and weekend sack lunches seven days a week to Athens’ homeless, hungry and working poor.
The program has been in town since 1989 and serves more than 60,000 meals a year.
“They have moved that function now over to First Baptist Church. First Baptist was very gracious in offering space,” Caine said. “So, all of the meals — the whole feeding program — will be located at First Baptist for the interim until [the church is] rebuilt.”
Action Ministries Athens could not be reached for comment, but Caine said the church is moving along with its other programs as well.
“All of their other programs are continuing ... not inside the church but in other buildings,” Caine said. “They’re continuing GED classes, computer literacy and financial literacy and individual case management.”
Church trustee Rick Alpaugh said he sees the tragedy as an opportunity to promote closeness among the church members and affiliates of the church.
“They’re in the transition of the recovery where they’re going to rebuild and it’s almost like a new beginning where they are looking into themselves” Alpaugh said.
He also noted the strength and sense of community among the displaced church members.
“It’s a devastation that they’ve lost their house of worship,” Alpaugh said, “but they have moved to a temporary facility. It is devastating and heart breaking, but they will recover.”