Gospel Hope After a Church Burning – Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra

The 911 call came in just before 11:00 p.m. last Saturday.

Someone driving by the historic College Hill Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi—the one founded nearly 180 years ago, the one that served as a Civil War hospital, the one where William Faulkner got married—had spotted smoke.

Firefighters arrived within a few minutes, but the building—including the original pulpit and pews—was already aflame.

“The fire was in full blaze by midnight,” said Clint Wilcke, who works as catalyst for the Mid-South Church Planting Network of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Since College Hill Presbyterian is between pastors, he also preaches there a few times a month, organizes their pulpit supply, and shepherds the elders and staff. “It seems there was an electrical fire in the back of the church, but it’s still under investigation.”

College Hill Presbyterian Church before the fire. The doors were always unlocked. / Courtesy of College Hill Presbyterian Church

Wilcke’s phone was set to silent, so he didn’t hear the news until he saw a morning text from a friend. “So sorry to hear about College Hill,” it said.

Uh-oh, Wilcke thought. What’s he talking about?

“I reached out to some folks, and we drove straight there,” he said.

He remembers pulling in. “I thought there would be more of a structure left,” he said. “It was hard to look at—just devastating. It was a complete ruin.”

The brick walls, which had been reinforced in the 1940s, were still standing. But the interior walls and roof and original wood pews were ashes. The communion table and hymnals and stained glass windows were gone. The pulpit was a charred stump.

But not all was lost. No one was hurt. One of the firefighters grabbed the Bible from the pulpit—the Bible pastors had been marking up and preaching from since the 1860s. And the fellowship hall, which had been built much later, was untouched in a separate building 200 yards away.

That’s where College Hill Presbyterian Church met on Sunday, seven hours after the fire was extinguished.

The Gospel Coalition asked Wilcke about that service, the reaction of the congregation, and how he’s seen God’s faithfulness over the past week.

What was the church service like on Sunday?

A lot of people were flat-out weeping and really struggling, because they were married in that church, and baptized there, and came to Christ there. Place matters.

But there was also tons of hope and encouragement. The elders have done a good job of listening and praying and coming alongside the members. The longest-standing ruling elder, Bill, was preaching that morning. He never even went out to the fire; when he heard about it, he knew he had to work on the sermon instead. I really appreciated his focus.

Firefighters couldn’t save the church—one of the oldest in Mississippi / Courtesy of College Hill Presbyterian Church

Some of the other elders went out to the fire and then put together emails in the middle of the night. Sunday morning, everyone jumped in—moving chairs and hymnals over to the fellowship hall. There was some crying and hugging and looking at the ruins in disbelief, but then everyone was focused on worship.

Bill’s texts were Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:15–22, and 1 Peter 2:4–10. He did a great job celebrating the history of God’s work and reminding us that we are the church, the building, the body, the bride of Christ. In that context, it’s not easy to say that. He didn’t dismiss the grief, but he was hopeful. He led people to the cross.

After the service, the fire department came back out and a lot of people went over to see and talk for a while.

I was encouraged by the desire to move forward and worship God.

What can you tell us about this congregation?

I first began attending College Park Presbyterian back when I was going to Ole Miss in the late 80s and early 90s. I was a new Christian, and it was a gospel-preaching church in the community.

The church has had a strong connection to the university over the years. Several faculty worshiped here. A ruling elder led an international student house ministry that had a profound influence and led several international students to Christ. The church has also used its resources, property, and office space to help the classical Christian school across the street. They have an encouraging history not just in their building, but also in their ministry.

Service in the fellowship hall the morning after the fire / Courtesy of College Hill Presbyterian Church

Over the years, other gospel-preaching churches—some in the PCA and a few Reformed Baptist—have been planted closer to the university, so students tend to go there.

Now, on a good Sunday, there are about 120 people attending. The pastor left in May to take a call back in his hometown, and the previous pastor left for the mission field in France. So I’m here as a coaching interim, and they’re working through a process to discover their strengths and weaknesses and their identity and mission and to prepare the next pulpit committee, which will call the next pastor for the work ahead.

Strangely enough, the fire has recentered people on the hope of the gospel. God’s timing is infinitely kind. I think this could be a severe mercy from the Lord and may open up tremendous opportunities.

When we were sitting on folding chairs in the fellowship hall on Sunday, I thought, This feels like a church plant to me.

How have you seen God’s faithfulness in such a dark time?

Alan Cochet served this church for 31 years before he began working with Mission to the World to plant churches in France. He’s back this summer on furlough, and at 2:00 a.m. the night of the fire, Alan was bringing sandwiches to the firefighters.

He’s well loved by the community, and he has been a huge asset. He was able to be at the service on Sunday, where he prayed and read several Bible passages. One was Isaiah 64, about God leading his people through the ashes of being taken off to Babylon. That one really stuck with me.

The church was still smoking the next day / Courtesy of College Hill Presbyterian Church

I was also struck by the older women, who were so friendly and hopeful and helpful. They could’ve been the generation that packed up their bags and went home, but I heard a lot of optimism and encouraging voices.

The elders, too, were all positive, thoughtful, and encouraging.

And all the other PCA ministers who have reached out, from Maryland to California. They’re asking how they can pray, how they can give. Yesterday, I had a call from Christian Education and Publications, who said they’d love to send us new hymnals. And every pastor in the area was reaching out to ask how he could pray or help us. There are a lot of beautiful connections in the body of Christ.

What’s next?

For me, this looks like a real opportunity the Lord has given. I’m sure there will be some folks going through the stages of grief. But the upside is they really will need to figure out how to minister to the kids they have, do Christian education, reach new people for Christ, and be the hands and feet of Jesus in all the places they haven’t been able to think about before.

Even before the fire, the entire session was unanimous in believing that God has given them many gifts. They just didn’t know how to align them here in this season.

The fire seems like God’s pruning and paring of them to use their talents and sharpen some of their gifts and abilities. They’re a harmonious session, all on the same page. And the way they all reacted to the fire reinforces the reality of what God has been doing in their hearts.

Trust and hope aren’t built in the boardroom but in the suffering of God’s people. A lot of churches can move into a boardroom mentality—how do we use business metrics to figure things out?

But College Hill Presbyterian is trying to discover how to go forward with the hope of the gospel, to trust one another in faith and good deeds, and to serve side by side. I couldn’t be more encouraged to see them join arms, figure out the next steps, and pray with hope in the Lord.

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