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Members of burned Texas church vow to carry on

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A UMNS photo by Patricia Cook

Fire engulfs First United Methodist Church in Cross Plains, Texas, early Dec. 27.

Jan. 2, 2006

By Steve Smith*

CROSS PLAINS, Texas (UMNS) - As 40-mile-an-hour winds whipped soot and ashes into her eyes and over her clothes, Melanie Long recalled memories of the beloved sanctuary of First United Methodist Church - now nothing but a charred hull. She nearly cried.

"I married my husband in that sanctuary 12 years ago," Long said. "Every Sunday, I would see me going down the center aisle and my husband waiting for me. I was never a member of a church until my husband and I got married, so this is my first church home.

"When I look at it now, I see nothing but devastation, but I know we're going to rebuild and be stronger than we've ever been before."

Long and 100 other parishioners anticipated kicking off a year of celebrating the church's 120th anniversary on New Year's Day in the sanctuary, but their plans literally went up in flames Dec. 27. "Tornadoes of winds," as one church member put it, fueled by dry cedar trees and grass, destroyed the sanctuary and half of the buildings in this central Texas town, 47 miles southeast of Abilene.

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A UMNS photo by Steve Smith

Melanie Long stands outside the gutted remains of First United Methodist Church.

Despite the carnage, Long joined 165 other people, including church members and leaders from the denomination's Central Texas Annual Conference, in the soot-covered parking lot on New Year's Day to worship God and receive assurances from the Rev. James Senkel, the church's pastor, that God is present even in the midst of firestorms.

During Senkel's sermon, one of the remaining church walls crashed to the ground. Several parishioners shuddered during the closing prayer when a fire engine, its sirens blaring, roared down the highway, presumably to another wildfire.

In this town of barely 1,000, known for its smoked deer meat and as the birthplace of writer Robert Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, wildfires destroyed 116 homes and killed two elderly women. More than 7,500 acres were scorched in Callahan County, where Cross Plains is located, as wildfires swept through central Texas and into Oklahoma, destroying 50,000 acres.

As First Church members worshiped outside their burned sanctuary, at least 20 more grass fires sprang up on the hot and windy Sunday across central and northern Texas. Officials also were evacuating parts of Oklahoma City neighborhoods that were ablaze, and additional fires were reported in New Mexico.

'Utter devastation'

Fire officials said the fires around Cross Plains were likely caused by somebody tossing a cigarette butt out a vehicle window. First Church members described the church, surrounding area and nearly all the town as a "war zone."

Four church members' homes were destroyed in the fire, as well as the parsonage. Senkel was forced to commute 85 miles one-way from Graham, Texas, where he owns a house.

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A UMNS photo by Steve Smith

The Rev. James Senkel (holding chalice) and the Rev. Shelly Brooks give Holy Communion during the Jan. 1 service.

Although no parishioners died or were injured, the church was a total loss - except for the baby Jesus in the sanctuary's Nativity scene. Long also salvaged the cross from the sanctuary and propped it up in the parking lot beside a burned Communion chalice.

Church members fought back tears as they remembered baptisms, weddings and funerals in the building.

"Sheer, utter devastation are the only words I can think of," said the Rev. Bill Reed, a retired pastor who led First Church from 1978 to 1983. He christened the sanctuary when it was built in the early 1980s, after the congregation moved from a downtown location. "I think of all the couples I married, all the children I baptized, the good times, the bad times, all the funerals.

"I know the church members loved this building, but they're going to love the new building. When we moved from downtown, people loved that old building and hated to leave, but they grew to love this building."

The church building was insured. Despite the disaster, parishioners plan to spend 2006 celebrating First Church's 120th anniversary, culminating with a special service Oct. 1 with Bishop Ben Chamness, who leads the annual conference.

Parishioner Lindy Cooper said congregants will worship at First Presbyterian Church, about five blocks away, until their new sanctuary is built.

Only a few Presbyterians are left at the church, "and they need our help with their building, too," she said. "Imagine what they'll think when a bunch of Methodists suddenly show up."

Donations pour in

Meanwhile, the Rev. Shelly Brooks, superintendent of the conference's Brownwood District, which includes Cross Plains, said the United Methodist Committee on Relief sent $10,000 recently to disaster coordinators to help with relief efforts in the community and more help is expected for Texas and Oklahoma.

"Our annual conference disaster relief coordinators will work very closely with local and regional disaster relief leaders, as well as UMCOR representatives, to develop a specific plan and budget for additional funds that will be used to help the community recover," Brooks said.

Donations for community relief can be made out to UMCOR, designated for Advance #901670, "Domestic Disaster - Cross Plains," and placed in church offering plates or sent directly to UMCOR at P.O. Box 9068, New York, NY 10087-9068. Credit-card contributions can be made by calling (800) 554-8583.

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A UMNS photo by Steve Smith

The Rev. James Senkel (left) meets with church members following Jan. 1 worship.

Brooks added that United Methodist churches throughout central Texas and from as far away as New York are responding with monetary donations and equipment.

Senkel said God will use the disaster for a greater good. Though First Church, with its 100 members, is the largest congregation he's ever led, he noted that he "spread the Gospel" to millions of people around the world who saw him interviewed on CNN about the fire. 

"Burning down this whole town is worth it if one person who heard me spends an eternity in heaven rather than in hell," Senkel said.

*Smith is a freelance writer based in Dallas.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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Fires Ravage Oklahoma City, Texas Towns

Resources

Cross Plains United Methodist Church

Central Texas Annual Conference

United Methodist Committee on Relief