CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- When school starts in August, about 50 Chattanooga middle-schoolers will miss out on a good thing.
That's because the fire that struck Red Bank United Methodist Church on June 10 burned the gym roof and caused other damage. While most church activities can go on in different locations, the "Safe House" after-school ministry will be canceled until the gym is restored, said the Rev. Jeff Lambert, Red Bank pastor.
"It's a great program and [Red Bank Middle School] loves it," Lambert said of Safe House. "Our first priority is to get the church office and the first floor of the educational building floor ready, so the pre-school can start on time."
The fire was caused by lightening striking the gym about 3:30 on a Friday afternoon. Lambert was working in his garden, about seven miles from the church at the parsonage, when Chattanooga District Superintendent Fred Dearing called Lambert's wife, Tammi.
"Bishop [James] Swanson heard about the fire on the radio and called Fred," Lambert said. The lightening was so loud that people 3/4 mile away said they heard it hit the church.
By the time Lambert arrived at 3800 Dayton Boulevard, the church lawn was occupied by 12 fire departments.
"They had to close the four-lane highway in front of the church -- the smoke was that thick," the pastor said.
The church fire was Holston's second in less than two months. On April 30, Kingston UMC in Oak Ridge District was damaged by fire.
Lambert said he was most alarmed when he saw that water from the firefighters' hoses was running toward the sanctuary on the other side of the building. Most of the church was damaged by water and smoke, but the sanctuary was saved when the water stopped within three feet.
"There would be a higher level of grief and sadness if the sanctuary had been involved," Lambert said.
Restoration and repair is estimated to cost $1 million. An Illinois company was on-site two weeks after the fire, drying out the water damage and moving furniture to the gym so the building could be renovated. (Eighteen church members served a home-cooked dinner to 30 out-of-town workers on a Tuesday night.)
After the restoration, "we expect to be better than what we were," Lambert said. A "brighter, clearer" floor and cost-efficient improvements for heating and air in the 22-year-old gym are being considered. (See photo.)
In the meantime, Red Bank is finding ways to keep most church activities going. Sunday school classes are meeting in the offices and sanctuary. A Monday-Wednesday-Friday exercise class is meeting at the Baptist church.
White Oak UMC, about five miles away, has also offered its building. The July 10 reception for incoming District Superintendent Mike Hubble was re-located to White Oak.
In the moments and weeks after the media first reported the fire, Holston readers shared concern and prayers for the Chattanooga District church through Facebook.
Two readers accepted the invitation to e-mail their thoughts directly to The Call:
"Remembering with joy the years we served at Red Bank, 1966-1969, and praying for you as you face this challenge. Peace and Love, Grady and Ottalee Winegar."
"Red Bank church to worship despite fire" (WTVC, 6/10/11)
"Thankfully, fire did not do more damage at Red Bank UMC" (Chattanoogan.com, 6/23/11)