By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
HARRIMAN — “We didn’t have church inside the building, but we had church in the community,” explained Wendell Edmonds, youth pastor, Walnut Hill Baptist Church here, after the church canceled Sunday activities to respond to victims of a fatal fire.
On April 17, a Sunday, at about 3 a.m., Edmonds, who also is a Harriman Fire Department chaplain, was awakened by a notification on his smart phone from the Fire Department. Soon Edmonds, a retired fireman and policeman, arrived at the fire, which was blazing less than a block from the church.
He quickly learned from friends in the fire department that one apartment resident, Sandra Mills, 67, who attended Walnut Hill, had died. In his grief and despite the danger as propane tanks stored at the engulfed gas station exploded, Edmonds helped firemen look for the other 10 apartment residents.
Thankfully, most were in apartments across the street, invited there by residents. The heat was great as nearly half of the block, including several other businesses, was destroyed. Most of the residents had escaped with their lives but nothing else, often even without their billfolds.
Then Edmonds began calling people. First he called Rick McAbee, pastor who had just undergone surgery, and then he called church leaders to ask them for help. Sunday morning activities were canceled because it would be difficult for church members to reach the church.
Edmonds then opened the church facility for emergency management officials and victims who needed to rest and drink a cup of coffee, which was quickly made by church members. He then called a couple of restaurants, which soon delivered breakfast.
“It was an overwhelming tragedy,” said Edmonds, who noted that Mrs. Mills was disabled so she would have had trouble escaping the fire. She had six children and 16 grandchildren, he noted. Her memorial service was held by Walnut Hill on April 29.
Several days after the fire, other victims were recovering.
Willis Sitzlar, a displaced resident of the apartments who participates in the church’s Thursday soup kitchen, food pantry, and clothes closet, said he lost everything he owned in the fire but his billfold. He had lived there for six years.
Sitzlar said he was thankful for Walnut Hill Baptist, and especially Valerie Rivas, a member of Walnut Hill, who arranged for a motel room for him on Sunday night and helped him find a new apartment. The church is providing household items for the apartment, which have been donated since the fire or donated earlier to the church for needy people.
Rivas also took Sitzlar to the Social Security office, food stamp office, and driver’s license office since he doesn’t have a car.
“We were acquaintances before this happened. We’re friends now,” said Rivas of Sitzlar.
“I don’t know what I would have done without these people,” he stated. Sitzlar began working at the church to help unload cars as people contributed to the relief effort at the church.
“Many blessings have come out of this. They really have,” said Rivas, who has worked at the church many hours since the fire.
Edmonds agreed, noting that the American Red Cross came to the neighborhood to offer help but then realized that Walnut Hill and its many friends had the needs covered. The church stayed open for 10 days offering help to fire victims and receiving items, including furniture and household goods, and money from as far away as Knoxville and Cookeville.
Harriman Fire Chief David Bailey told the Knoxville News Sentinel the church “did a tremendous job working with the occupants. They essentially canceled church services and opened the doors to the community. They performed a baptism in the midst of all this.”
Edmonds explained that he did baptize a new Christian in the midst of everything that Sunday morning. He might have delayed it but the son of the lady to be baptized had traveled from Chattanooga to be present for the event.
The church was prepared to respond to this disaster in an unusual way, agreed McAbee, Edmonds, and others at the church.
About nine months ago the small congregation faced a crisis which seemed very bad to most of the members and to those who left because of it. A conflict developed over whether to stay in the church’s old building or build a better one. Both sides had their reasons which seemed justified.
Building a new building made sense to some church leaders including two staff members.
Others felt it would be better to stay and give any funds available to their church ministries which sustain many families in the community.
When it became apparent the two sides could not reach an agreement, several families chose to leave the church.
So God used this crisis to prepare the church for a community crisis, explained McAbee, who has served for about two years.
The church had already made a turnaround after the crisis if measured by the fact that McAbee baptized 79 new Christians last year and has baptized 23 this year. The congregation has grown from about 100 last year on Sunday mornings to about 150 currently.
Another change which has occurred in the turnaround is that the culture of the church has been refined even more to being “the church of second chances,” observed the pastor.
That’s just fine with him, said McAbee, who is known for his tattoos, Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and being able to relate to folks who have struggled. He’s been known to visit people in the drug culture.
McAbee admitted he is drawn to people who need second chances. He has needed them himself. He was a pastor of a previous church and then went through a divorce from his wife. Of course, he thought he would never pastor a Baptist church again. Then, while on a pastor search committee at Walnut Hill, he was called as pastor.
“God gave me a second chance and I’m thankful for it and humble because of it.”
He hopes the story of Walnut Hill will encourage other churches that are “teetering on the edge. Maybe they’ll hang on and depend on God. …”
“One thing that has happened in the last year is that now we know we’re doing exactly what He wants us to do,” said McAbee.
“God is a God of second chances.”