The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

December 19, 2012

Winds of change: Bethel church congregation has new home

By Rebecca Croomes
For The News Courier

— In the Bible, Bethel means “house of God.”

To preacher Jimmy Clark, the new Bethel Church of Christ building means a house of God with room to grow.

“We’re ahead of schedule by four months,” Clark said.

Bethel will host its first Sunday morning service this weekend in a building still smelling of fresh carpet and polished wood.

On April 27, 2011, the Bethel location on U.S. 72 was destroyed when an EF5 tornado raked across Limestone County. The building seemed to implode when the roof was lifted 30 feet into the air and thrown back down on top of a pile of bricks, glass and wood, according to a witness.

Clark had left the building earlier in the day when he and his secretary, Kay Pepper, lost power because of the other tornadoes in the area. He rode out the storms at his home in the Coffee Pot community. He later learned some residents had taken shelter in the basement of the church’s annex building, which was damaged, but still standing, so they all survived. Fourteen families from Bethel had homes damaged or destroyed.

For Clark and the church elders, the task then became one of keeping the flock together while searching for a new place to worship.

Temporary to new

A temporary solution was found within the halls of Hobbs Street Church of Christ. The two congregations partner up for an annual summer camp and also enjoyed other fellowship activities.

However they could only hold service in the early afternoon, so three months after the twister, the group found itself at Athens Bible School. They have been there for the last 17 months.

In the meantime, the elders and Clark began deciding on a long-term solution. Fortunately, the congregation was already raising money to construct a new building on the corner of Capshaw and Bledsoe Roads in East Limestone before the tornado. Clark said in an earlier interview with The News Courier that the blueprints had been pinned to the wall of the auditorium to encourage giving.

“It could be several years down the road,” Clark said.

They had been denied a bank loan because of the recession, so were setting aside the contribution from every third, fourth and fifth Sunday to put toward the building fund. It was money that had been decided would be enough to not hinder operations or mission work.

After the tornado, insurance and the cash that had been raised so far saw Bethel on its way to a new home. Clark said people also donated money to go toward the building as part of the relief effort.

Returning congregation

With the construction complete, Clark looks to bring back as many of the congregation as possible, but he said he knows some have found new church homes closer to where they live.

“We don’t want to bug them to death,” Clark said. “There are several of them that are going to come back. That’s sort of encouraging.”

The new building is larger, to say the least. This is to accommodate the expected growth of the East Limestone Community. A two-week door knocking campaign leads up to Sunday’s service.

As for the structure itself, Clark is impressed.

“There’s some things I don’t have a clue how it operates,” Clark said. “Right now our heads are kind of spinning. There’s a lot more capabilities in the new building. You just gotta walk through it to see it.”

The first thing installed was a solid concrete storm shelter with a capacity for 500 people, to be open to the community.

This was the vision of the elders, Clark said. To have a larger building that will take care of their needs for the foreseeable future.

Clark’s office is much larger.

“I’ll never be able to fill up those bookcases,” Clark said.

But with all its shiny new things, Clark is more “ecstatic” about the potential of the souls who will fill the pews.

“The Bethel Church is not the building, it’s the people,” Clark said. “It presents new challenges ... if we stay Bible-based, because it’s not our congregation, it’s the Lord’s.”

A change of attitude has apparently come over the congregants.

“I’ve seen a lot of people reaching out, talking about the congregation more now than before the tornado,” Clark said.

Bethel Church of Christ will meet, for the first Sunday morning in 20 months, at their own building at the corner of Capshaw and Bledsoe Roads this weekend at 9:30 a.m. The building will also be available for rentals. In fact, the first wedding is scheduled for next September.