A year after fire, Pulaski Church of God rising, rebuilding

PULASKI, Va. (AP) — Despite a massive fire that ripped through one of the oldest and largest churches in Pulaski County nearly a year ago, members of its congregation are quick to remind one another how blessed they are.

On Jan. 10 2017, a late-night fire erupted in the nearly 100-year-old Pulaski Church of God’s facility on Bob White Boulevard in Pulaski, destroying the sanctuary and sending a shock wave through its congregation.

After a joint FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigation found no signs of foul play, the Pulaski Fire Marshal deemed the cause of the fire “undetermined” but pointed to evidence consistent with an electrical fire.

Ronnie Burchett, a member of the congregation for nearly 50 years, was one of many parishioners who gathered in a parking lot across the street that night as word of the fire spread almost as quickly as the flames.

“We all just stood there and watched it,” Burchett said. “It was really shocking for people. We came together and prayed. Everyone stayed together. We’ve all really rallied over the last year.”

Now, the debris of the burned-out church has been removed, a new pastor has arrived and architectural plans are being put in place to build a modern worship facility for the growing church of nearly 400 people.

In the weeks and months that followed the fire, the church adopted a newfound mantra: Rejoice (that nobody was hurt or killed). Rise (from the gut-punch of a destroyed home). And rebuild (a bigger and better place of worship).

“That fire took a lot of memories with it . weddings and baptisms, conversions and calls to service,” said senior Pastor Don Jones, who took over the rebuilding effort in October. “But there has been resilience here. The community and the camaraderie have been so incredible. People care about this church and have responded.”

People outside the Church of God responded, too.

Immediately following the fire, the Appalachian Conference of Pentecostal Holiness in Dublin opened its doors to the congregation, which conducted its services there until May.

By then, the church campus had been deemed safe to re-enter and almost 400 chairs had been moved into a combined fellowship hall and dining center in an adjacent building.

This is where the Pulaski Church of God holds its services today. Black roll-away curtains flank makeshift choir risers, and banquet hall-style chandeliers hang overhead.

“It’s a bit of a confined squeeze,” Jones joked. “But it works.”

The hope is shortly after the new year, six months of architectural planning and negotiation with a contractor will lead to an approximately 18-month-long construction phase.

The church turns 100 years old in 2019.

“I’d love to tell you we’ll have it done by then,” Jones said, making no promises. “The history of this place is one of the reasons I think people have responded.”

That response has manifested itself in a way that is most meaningful to a church in a small town — new members. The parish office estimated 225 members at the time of the fire. That number has ballooned to more than 300 attendees each week to date.

Insurance is covering most of the estimated $4.5 million rebuilding project, according to Travis Gore, the senior pastor at the time of the fire who currently works in Roanoke as the head of the Church of God’s Virginia youth ministry program.

“In all my years of ministry, I’ve never seen a church with more influence on a community,” Gore said. “There are many people who don’t attend the church that call it ‘their’ church.”

And although private donations help, music pastor Tony Eads said, the smallest gestures from citizens and businesses of Pulaski County have been the most meaningful.

“It’s crazy to see all the support. We have been truly blessed,” Eads said. “We’ve had donations of rock from rock quarries . people donating or letting us borrow music and other equipment. Even the KFC and other businesses have put messages of support on their signs.”

Personal gifts piled up. The All Nations Church in Wythe County donated extra chairs for the temporary sanctuary.

“All of these people didn’t ask for anything,” said Gene Turpin, a member of the church’s board of elders and parishioner for 52 years. “We’ve seen a lot of new people. Sometimes curiosity brings people in. We’ve been very blessed.”

It would have been easy for the congregation to wallow in self-pity after losing their beloved house of worship to an unexplained tragedy. But armed with the power of their faith, the men and women of the Pulaski Church of God have faced the adversity head-on.

“God himself didn’t burn that church down. But things happen,” Turpin said. “We aren’t radicals or fanatics or anything like that. We just believe that if you put your faith and trust in the Lord, things will work out.”