Dedication celebrates rebirth of church destroyed by arson
Amid song and celebration, members of St. John Baptist Church and hundreds of friends and dignitaries joined together to dedicate the Charles City church’s new home on Nov. 23, a little less than five years after an arsonist destroyed the original building in a Feb. 9, 2004 early morning blaze.
As firefighters doused the still smoldering ashes on that cold February morning, church members looked on and vowed to press forward. That sentiment surfaced as worship leader the Rev. Vance Jones opened the dedication service.
“The old church building is no more, but we’re the church,” he shouted from the pulpit.
“Yeah!” the overflow crowd of close to 400 responded in unison.
St. John had its humble beginnings in 1897 under its founder, the Rev. John E. Jones, as an offshoot of Little Elam Baptist Church. The purpose was to reduce travel time and distance to reach Little Elam for those living in the Wayside community.
Little Elam leaders voted to give Jones $10 for starting a new church, St. John member Phyllis Charity noted as she read excerpts from St. John’s history. In 1900, an acre of land on which to build a permanent home was purchased for $8, she said.
Times have changed. St. John’s new home boasts 11,000 square feet and a price tag of $2.7 million. Floor space inside is almost four times greater than the structure that burned to the ground.
Church members built the original sanctuary by hand. This time, an architect and contractor were hired to perform the task. Design work began in July 2006, architect W. Henry Harris told the crowd.
“It’s been a long time coming, but I think it’s been worth the wait,” he said.
Contractor Kenny Evans echoed Harris’ comments that praised the church’s building council, led by Gary Cole, in coordinating the construction effort.
“It’s been a good project, and I’ve enjoyed working with everybody,” he told those assembled. “The Lord brought this team together and we were able to put this project together without a bump in the road.”
The service’s featured speaker, the Rev. Dr. Sylvester Smith, pastor of Richmond’s Good Shepherd Baptist Church, told the crowd, “Putting up a structure like this is not easy. No matter how dedicated community members are, only the Lord brings forth the victory.
“The building is not the church. The church walks out of here,” Smith continued. “If they bring it down, God says I have faith in the people to build the church back up again.”
Pointing to a photo in the service’s program showing flames erupting from the original building, Smith urged the crowd not to forget the arsonist’s work.
“Keep in your mind what the devil does,” he said. “Keep this picture in your mind and pass on to future generations what this new building means.”
Dozens of the church founder’s descendants attended the ceremony, including granddaughter Thelma Robinson who spoke for the family.
“This is a great day for St. John,” she said. “My grandfather would be so proud of what’s going on and proud of the people who have made this come true.”
Cole, who headed the building council, thanked all who supported the effort, including New Kent residents Jimmy and Herman Burrell who converted sills salvaged from the ruins into the new building’s pulpit furniture.
St John’s pastor, the Rev. Ellsworth Tait, said the new building is the first phase of the church’s expansion. He also heaped praise on leaders and members of Samaria Baptist Church who opened their doors to St. John’s congregation immediately after the fire.
“It’s been a wonderful collaboration,” Tait said in thanking the Samaria family, many of whom attended the dedication service, as well as others who contributed. “People from all races and all walks of life came to the aid of St. John.”