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Pastor escapes burning church unharmed, being offered new worship spaces after fire

Published: Jun. 15, 2022 at 9:52 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 16, 2022 at 4:27 AM EDT
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SUMMERVILLE, S.C. (WCSC) - Pastor John H. Hill got to First Emmanuel Baptist Church in Summerville at about noon to start preparing for his congregation’s Wednesday night spaghetti dinner and bible study. He says he turned on the crock pot and got to work before settling into his study to look at scripture.

“I heard whamming on the door, there’s a guy trying to get my attention,” Hill said. “He said your building is on fire, you need to get out, and up to that point, I had no idea it was on fire,” Hill said.

It was a firefighter warning him of the flames. The Dorchester County Fire Chief Tres Atkinson says when crews arrived Wednesday afternoon, about a quarter of the building was flaming and smoking. Hill was the only one inside, and he walked out safely, unharmed.

Within about 45 minutes, fire departments had the blaze under control. Adkinson says when the roof caved in, it helped smother the fire. The church steeple still stands tall but is black with ashes.

Hill said even just hours after news of the fire spread, he had half a dozen other religious leaders reaching out to offer help and support.

“These things, you look at it as a tragedy, and it is…but if it will bring a community together, I’m good with that,” Hill said. “And it’s a matter of having faith. Who do you trust in? Do you trust in man, or do you trust in God? And we choose to trust God.”

Rodd Hibbard is the Pastor of Hope Church in Summerville, just down the road. He was on the scene as soon as he heard about the fire. He says he and his wife suffered a house fire years ago and knows the pain of losing memories.

“It’s very difficult,” Hibbard said. “I’m very thankful that nobody was injured, but just knowing the emotional…and especially with the church, something you’re tied to so closely, to the people at that church and what they’re going on, especially Pastor John, I just want to make sure that we are here to pray for them and to support them in any way that we can.”

Hill says he knows his congregation can get through this because they have seen hardship before. Hill suffered a heart attack last year, and despite a bad diagnosis, he was back to his community sooner rather than later.

“God’s in control,” Hill said. “We think sometimes he’s only in control when things are going well, but he’s in control when things are going badly.”

He says the next steps are to accept some of the help from neighbors and make a plan with his parishioners to continue worship however they can. He wants to welcome anyone in the community to join the church.

“If you come to our church and you run out without at least one or two people giving you a hug, you ran out too fast,” Hill said.

Hill says the First Emmanuel Baptist Church was getting ready to celebrate its 85th anniversary this October, so it will be hard going forward with the loss of the building. But he has hope that with lots of prayer and work, they will rebuild.

Hibbard says watching another church burn took him back to the day he saw his house go up in flames, and he knows what it will take to come back from the damage. But he has faith the community will help make it happen.

“It’s going to months, and it’ll never be the same,” Hibbard said. “There’s a lot of memories people have been married here, people have probably had funerals here. There’s a lot of memories that aren’t there in a physical form.”

Hibbard says he and his church will be there every step of the way.

“The church isn’t a building; it’s a family,” Hibbard says. “It’s a body of believers that meet together and immediately try to figure out what can we do to make sure that they can still come together as a family.”

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