United Methodists Near and Far Embrace Oconee St UMC After Fire
By Ansley Brackin
People who live by the motto “out with the old and in with the new,” are usually referring to simple changes within their control: clothes, hairstyles, or furniture. Oconee Street United Methodist Church in Athens felt the weight of these words when a fire unexpectedly deemed their historic church home of 110 years as unusable.
But the jolt of this situation was almost immediately buffered. Allison Floyd, Young Harris Memorial UMC’s Children and Youth Programs Coordinator, came to Oconee Street’s Rev. Lisa Caine only 12 hours after the chaos.
Members of Young Harris Memorial UMC initially heard of the fire through local radio updates.
Floyd decided to go survey the damage herself and express her church’s condolences.
When she asked Caine what they could do to help she was most impressed by how Caine’s first thought was to find a place for her congregation to continue worshipping on the upcoming Sunday. It was very important for them to continue on as normal as possible and hold tightly to the United Methodist Church.
Young Harris Memorial provided Caine’s congregation with an area for their Sunday school classes and for meetings to regroup. Oconee Street UMC also used their gymnasium for services for two weeks.
After sorting out their situation, the church gratefully moved to the chapel of Tuckston UMC, a local church built in the same era as Oconee Street.
The atmosphere resembled that of their own sanctuary, providing some comfort to the congregation. All of the church’s activities are still in full swing there, including their Vacation Bible
School starting on July 7.
Tuckston UMC will continue to house them until their building has been restored.
“As a church so used to giving and to serving others, we have been humbled and blessed by the opportunity to receive,” says Rev. Caine. “Our United Methodist connectional support is amazing! We definitely do not feel alone.”
Disaster teams within the North Georgia Conference immediately offered hands for cleaning and rebuilding the historic sanctuary; however, no work can be done immediately according to fire investigators.
The next steps involve examining the smoke and water damage within Oconee Street’s education building and demolishing the unsalvageable sanctuary. Due to the amount of damage, a construction company is needed to rebuild, and the building is currently cordoned. An architect will soon be hired to rebuild the sanctuary with the help of the church’s building committee. The committee members are excited for the future of their new building, but hope to pay respects to the historic frame that was first planted.
While the church has received many financial gifts for their Building Fund, Rev. Caine says, “the good wishes and encouragement from each donor has been equally heartwarming.”
The mayor of Athens, as well as several Athens-Clarke County officials, has contributed positive feedback, while the church continues to receive advice and guidance throughout the restorative process.
Bishop Mike Watson of the North Georgia Conference has also visited the site and prayed with the Oconee Street congregation.
Offerings of encouragement and donations have not been limited to those from the North Georgia Conference. Churches, organizations, and individuals have reached out from states as far as Maine, California, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
The church continues to receive monetary donations as well as words of encouragement through their Rebuild Oconee Street webpage: www.rebuildoconeestreet.org
. There followers keep up to date on the progress of rebuilding the church as well as the status of the congregation. Other features include a section for posting the memories and photos that members have with Oconee Street, and recorded sermons.
Though new supporters are increasing and new walls will be built, not all is brand new for Oconee Street. While continuing to restore order in their new situation, the congregation has received paraments, candle holders, bibles, and hymnals donated by other churches that have closed.
Farmington UMC, a church that closed a few years ago, is one of several contributors through the District Office.
Rev. Caine is happy to be incorporating these precious bits and pieces of other churches into their own.
“Despite our loss,” says Caine, “we rejoice in our United Methodist Connection and the goodness of God and God’s people.”
There is also a lot of hope in keeping the church’s front wall supporting the bell tower, along with the bell itself. This alliance of old and new has honored past memories and supports the future of Oconee Street United Methodist Church.
Ansley Brackin is a freelance designer, writer, and photographer. Photo courtesy of Oconee Street UMC. Pictured from left, Athens Elberton Superintendent Dr. Gary Whetstone, North Georgia Conference Bishop Mike Watson and Maxine Easom tour the damage of Oconee Street UMC.