An evangelist from Louisiana planned to preach during two services Sunday at Lighthouse Tabernacle in Crothersville.
Instead, Sam Stegall woke up around 6 a.m. hearing someone beating on the door of his trailer behind the church. A passerby saw smoke coming from the rear of the church and was worried someone was in the trailer and unaware of the fire.
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Stegall then called the church’s pastor, Jerry Miles, and Miles called member Denver Glenn to also head to the church.
The wraparound portion of the building was on fire, and the fire spread into the sanctuary, which had wooden beams and several chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
The church, built in 1975, was destroyed by the fire, but fortunately, no injuries were reported.
The cause remains under investigation, and the state fire marshal planned to visit the scene since it involves a church, said Charles Densford, chief of the Crothersville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department.
By the time Miles and Glenn arrived at the church, police and fire departments were on the scene.
“When I came up, Sam said, ‘Well, it’s just a building,’” said Miles, who has been the church’s pastor since 1988. “I said, ‘Well, yeah, but you know what? This is all I’ve got.’ One of the young men from my church was standing there, and he said, ‘But you’ve got us.’ It caught me. I’ve got great people. I thought, ‘What’s a building? We’ll rebuild.’ I’ve got great people, and they are already surrounding me.”
Miles said he told Glenn to tell the firefighters to do what they could and be safe.
“The beams are wood in the sanctuary. I said, ‘Just make sure you tell them once it gets in the sanctuary, don’t go in there. It could collapse at any minute. I don’t want anybody hurt,’” Miles said.
Glenn, who has been a member of the church for 36 years, said he went to the church around 5 a.m. Sundays to turn the air conditioning on, but since there was a funeral there the day before, he decided to leave it on overnight.
He said it’s possible something shorted in the electrical box on the back side of the church.
“It was hot,” he said of the fire. “It was coming through pretty quick.”
Since the fire spread into the sanctuary, Miles said the church will have to be rebuilt. He said the inside of the church was remodeled about eight years ago, and two sets of bathrooms on each end of the rear of the building had just been redone. He was in the process of redoing the Sunday school room.
“I put a lot of wood trim inside the sanctuary,” he said. “It was beautiful.”
Behind the church is a standalone fellowship building, and Miles said once electricity is restored, it could be used for services. A couple of pastors from Crothersville and Seymour already had reached out to let him know they would let his congregation use their facilities.
Miles said that meant a lot to him, and he also was glad to see members of his congregation ensuring firefighters had food and drinks while battling the fire.
“People are just jumping right in,” Miles said. “They are great people.”
Tracie Kovener, a Crothersville resident and member of the church, said it was important for them to take care of the firefighters from six area departments — Crothersville-Vernon, Jackson-Washington, Grassy Fork and Brownstown in Jackson County along with Jennings Township Volunteer Fire Department in Austin and Scottsburg Fire Department.
“We’ve been feeding them breakfast, water and we’ve got pizzas ordered for them,” she said. “They are all volunteer, they took time away from their family, they jumped out of bed and got here and we appreciate it.”
Kovener said she didn’t realize the magnitude of the fire until she arrived at the church.
“Then you start crying,” she said. “Our pastor said this is his life. That’s what we said, too.”
Despite watching flames and smoke come from the church, Kovener had a positive outlook.
“It’s heartbreaking on the outside because blood, sweat and tears have been in this. We just went through a remodeling process, and it was beautiful inside, so when you pull up, that overwhelms you,” she said.
“But this church was built by the saints back in the 1970s. They built it from the foundation up. There are a lot of memories because I grew up in this church,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching, but we believe in God. We put our faith and trust in God is what the church is based on.”
Rachel Roll of Seymour is another longtime church member. She also maintained positivity.
“It’s very heartbreaking, but we’re believing there’s going to be good that comes of it,” she said.
Jim and Sandra Foster of Crothersville also have gone to the church for a long time. They live next to the fire station on Moore Street and usually hear the firetrucks going out on calls, but they somehow missed it Sunday morning.
Jim’s nephew, Ron, a reserve police officer in Crothersville, called him Sunday morning to tell him the church was on fire.
“New beginning is the first thing that popped in my mind,” Jim said of his reaction to the news.
“I told him we need to take buckets (of water to the scene). We just didn’t get it,” Sandra said.
She said she was in disbelief.
“I got filled with the holy ghost (at the church), and (Miles) turned my life around from drugs and alcohol. This is where it took place,” Sandra said with tears welling in her eyes.
Jim said he was proud of the church members for doing what they could to help the firefighters.
“The Lord doesn’t close a door without opening a window,” he said.
Church member Robert McClellan of Seymour said Scripture kept coming to his mind Sunday morning.
“Romans 8:28, it says, ‘And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose,’” he said. “I truly believe this may look like a bad situation right now, but I’ve seen God turn bad situations around, and I really feel like it’s going to be all right.”
Glenn said while it’s heartbreaking because he got married in the church and it has been a big part of his life and a witness to the community, he looks for the church to move forward.
“You hate to see the devastation, but I am a big believer that God has a purpose for all things,” he said. “We’ve just got to step back and say, ‘God, you’re in control, and we’re going to let you do that.’ It’s emotional, but you just have to step back and know there’s absolutely nothing we could have done. The other side of it is you just put your confidence in God. It’s really what it comes down to.”
The Crothersville Police Department and Jackson County Sheriff’s Department helped block Armstrong Street or U.S. 31 near the church while firefighters worked the scene. Jackson County Emergency Medical Services personnel also responded.