By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
MORRISTOWN — It’s probably safe to say that not many pastors experienced an introduction to their first pastorate like Jason Lemka encountered last year at Roe Junction Baptist Church in Morristown.
Lemka, who has been a member of Roe Junction for about 20 years, was elected as pastor of the church just as a worldwide pandemic was getting underway. Three weeks later, the sanctuary of the 100-year-old church was destroyed by fire in the early morning hours of March 30. The fire was caused by a lightning strike.
It has been an incredibly stressful year for a minister in his first pastorate but he affirms that faith has carried him through the pandemic, the loss of their building and a rebuilding process that can only be deemed a miracle from God.
“The Lord has held me together thus far,” Lemka said. “When we get it (the new building) done, I may just break down,” he told the Baptist and Reflector.
But the pastor is quick to credit faith for carrying him and his congregation through a difficult season. “We talk about faith. Preachers preach about faith. But do we really have enough faith to have faith when it is most needed?” he asked.
Lemka said he has learned that “when faith is all you’ve got,” it is more than enough. “There is nothing God can’t do,” he affirmed.
Rewind to last year after fire destroyed the building. The order to shut down churches and businesses came immediately after the fire so the church was unable to meet. “We couldn’t even gather to hug one another,” he recalled.
As the church began to make plans to rebuild, they discovered the new facility would cost about $1.5 million. The church also learned that it was underinsured and that they could only expect about $750,000. What’s more, a contractor who Lemka knew and trusted was going to help the church but he caught COVID-19 and died within a week. “That was another huge blow,’ he recalled.
Another friend suggested to Lemka that he contact David Wild, a contractor and member of First Baptist Church, Morristown. Wild agreed to help and he contacted Builders for Christ, an organized group of churches and volunteers that come together every summer to do mission work constructing church facilities for existing Christian congregations “that are actively telling their communities about the saving grace of Jesus Christ,” according to the organization’s website.
Though it was late in the planning process, Builders for Christ agreed to travel to Tennessee for about eight weeks this summer. Approximately 400 volunteers from 13 states joined local volunteers from Morristown and surrounding counties to build a new sanctuary for Roe Junction Baptist Church.
Lemka estimated the donated labor saved the church about $200,000 and he said that did not include the time contributed by Wild.
With the free labor and some adjustments to its original design, the church has been able to stay within the $750,000 they received from the insurance company, Lemka said. “Though it is a smaller building than the one that burned, it feels twice as big,” Lemka said, noting the church eliminated some wasted space the previous building had. “The Lord took our $750,000 and look at what He’s done with it,” Lemka said. “He doubled it.”
As the construction nears the end, Lemka is overwhelmed by what he has seen.
“It’s been a hard road to get here, but when you look back, it’s amazing what can happen if you just put your faith in God,” he affirmed.
“Though the building had to be downsized to get within the budget, it still will have 8,400 square feet and will seat 200 people. Like other churches, COVID has decreased attendance for Roe Junction which has averaged about 60-70 people each week while meeting in the church’s fellowship hall which was not damaged by the fire. “I hope the numbers will go up once we get into the new building,” the pastor said.
While grateful for Builders for Christ, Lemka is also appreciative of the efforts of Wild who served as the general contractor for the construction. He and other businesses donated a significant amount of equipment and labor at no cost.
In addition, First Baptist Church, Morristown, took up donations for the church amounting to thousands of dollars. Other churches also helped with volunteers and gifts.
”We would never be where we are now without community involvement,” he observed.
The church has scheduled a day of celebration on Sunday, Oct. 3, to dedicate the new facility and to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
The anniversary was actually last year, but they could not celebrate due to COVID, the pastor said. He noted some of the volunteers from Builders for Christ plan to attend as well as others from the community.
“We have had our ups and downs,” Lemka said, “but it has been good. Everyone is excited about the new building.” B&R