By Jason A. Smith
A line of yellow caution tape separated Pastor Terrence Wilson from the charred remains of the Wolf Creek County Line Baptist Church in Locust Grove.
Over the weekend, a fire turned the 138-year-old church into ashes, badly burned wood and fire-scarred brick.
"We can't stop just because of devastation," said Wilson, 30, of Jonesboro. "We're looking at this as an opportunity for God to take us to a better place."
The church fire at 3352 Old Jackson Road, near the Butts County line, occurred early Sunday morning, according to Henry County Fire Marshal, and Division Chief of Prevention, Joe Kelley. He said his agency received a call from Butts County 911 around 2:35 a.m.
"The fire was reported by a by-passer, who [had] seen the smoke and the flames coming from the rear of the church," Kelley said. "We arrived on the scene, and went immediately to a two-alarm [mode]."
Firefighters brought the flames under control between 4 a.m., and 5 a.m., according to Kelley. He described the church as completely "lost."
Kelley said the fire department is working the case with investigators from the State Fire Marshal's Office, and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The cause of the fire, he said, is "undetermined."
"We've still got a lot to look into it, before we can make a determination," Kelley said. "From what we've received so far, it appears that it started in the middle of the church. We have to look at everything that was in there, as far as the electrical system, and anything else they may have had in there that may have accidentally started the fire.
"We've got a fairly old building here," the fire marshal continued. "We don't know how much updating they've done to the church, or how many additions ..."
There is no immediate evidence of arson in the case, Kelley added. He said leaders from the church have received support from the local faith community, in the wake of the fire.
"There have been several churches in the area that have offered their [facilities] to help this church out and make sure they have a Christmas for them ... and that they're able to have services," Kelley said.
Prior to the fire, the church had a membership of about 50 people, according to Pastor Wilson. He said rebuilding the church is a "priority" for him, and other church leaders.
"We're pressing forward as strongly as we can," he said. As for the cause," Wilson said, "All we can do is speculate."
Ernest Wise, chairman of the deacon ministry, has attended the church all his life. Wise said he is saddened by the loss, but is confident investigators will uncover the cause of the fire.
"It's devastating, but the Lord knows best," said Wise, 70, of Jonesboro. "I'm mainly leaving this to the experts. Whatever they come up with, that's what we'll have to live with. We're not looking to make accusations. We don't have a clue what's happening."
Wise's cousin, Thomas Wise, also serves as a deacon at the church, and is a fellow lifetime attendee. He said the tragedy of the fire has brought members of the church closer together.
Thomas Wise also offered a word of encouragement, for those affected by the tragedy.
"The building is gone, but the church is not," said Thomas Wise, 68, of Jackson. "It's in our hearts. God never makes a mistake. Sometimes, we don't understand, but it's for a reason. Only God knows."