April 4, 2009
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
The Rev. Ron Thomas remembers the phone call that came that late November Sunday.
"I was fixing to walk out to go to my church to preach, and the telephone rang," the Broadacres United Methodist Church pastor remembers. "They were telling me there''d been a fire at the campground. I really thought at first they were kidding."
Unfortunately, the destruction at the 181-year-old Tabernacle United Methodist Church campground near the Alabama state line was all too real. Five of the simple sawdust-floor structures camp-goers refer to as "tents" even today were lost. The Thomas'' cabin, passed from family to family through years of weeklong summer revival meetings, was among them. The charred and blackened void on "the hill of the Lord" was as emotional as it was structural.
But Thomas and his wife, Ann, recently received another phone call, this one from Richmond, Va. Longtime friend and fellow pastor Dr. Jim Lavender -- a Columbus native -- rang to say Discovery United Methodist Church in Richmond, where Lavender is senior pastor, was sending a United Methodist Volunteers in Mission team to Mississippi to raise a new "tent" from the ashes.
"When they first told me what they were going to do, all I could do was cry," shared a grateful Thomas, who also serves as chaplain for Heart to Heart Hospice.
Resting on a folding chair this past week at the building site, recovering from back surgery he''d undergone only the day before, he marveled, "It was just amazing they would drive all this way to help an old preacher." After a pause, he added with a chuckle, "I guess I''ll have to start pulling for them (Virginia) in sports."
"When we found out the cabin burned, members of our congregation raised exactly $10,000 in 11 days," Lavender stated. First United Methodist Church in Columbus also contributed. "Our goal was to come down here and basically rebuild it in three days," continued Lavender. It''s also hoped resurrecting this first structure will encourage others to rebuild at the historic site, too.
The attachment to the campground and this particular cabin dates back to childhood for Lavender, who graduated from S.D. Lee High School in 1971 and, later, Duke University. It once housed the extended Lavender clan as they convened for camp meetings.
"This place is where I gave my life to Jesus Christ in 1965 at age 12," the pastor shared with his congregation in a heartfelt written message.
"This is a big moment," the former Columbian said, as the first roof rafter was hoisted into place. In spite of rain the day before, by Wednesday afternoon the team of about a dozen volunteers from Virginia had posts sunk and basic framing done, thanks to preliminary tasks handled by local supporters like Jim Godwin, David Shelton and others.
"By the time we leave Friday, we expect to have a roof up and sides on," said Lavender, who felt "led to a vacant lot to start a church" in Richmond in 1983. The Discovery Church now has approximately 1900 members.
"Some of the volunteers working in Columbus this week have been in our church only three weeks; some have been with us for nearly 20 years," said "Dr. Jim" of the group who drove down from Virginia.
"This has been a real pleasure," said Joan Shepherd, taking a quick break. After 32 years in the criminal justice system, the energetic cancer survivor re-connected with church four years ago and has found it an "outlet to give back" ever since.
"There''s no good work like work that''s done for free," she pronounced, smiling. "If you tried to pay me a salary for it, it doesn''t work -- you''ve got to give it from the heart."
Others on the team toil in the afternoon sun. Volunteers like David Morgan, who soldiers on after fashioning a patch to protect an eye aggravated by sawdust. And Hank Sims, a licensed contractor who has only been at Discovery Church for about three weeks but wanted to make a difference, just as he did by going to Waveland after Hurricane Katrina.
Volunteer Nancy Pennington and her husband, Randy, came a few days early to take advantage of Pilgrimage and have been impressed with Columbus.
Staying in nearby rustic cabins at night, sawdust floors and all, has been a bonding experience for the team, giving them stories to share back home. And the Virginians hope church members in Richmond will be able to literally follow the cabin frame going up through a Google satellite link while attending the church supper that night.
"Tabernacle means heritage, friendship and family," said Lavender, watching the building progress. Everyone involved has found abundant blessings in the unselfish project.
As Shepherd said before returning to her post on the scaffold, "When you give back to good people who need help, at the end of the day, you usually feel even better than the person you''re helping."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.