In the early morning hours of June 3rd, 2017, The First Church of God at 1003 Logan Street, McMechen, West Virginia caught fire, and despite the best-efforts firefighters and first responders, the damage was almost total. All that remained were 2 small windows from the basement. A church that had stood in the center of the town since 1907 (110 years), was gone.
Six years later, Pastor Mitch Johnston reflects on that time:
”People were just devastated. We spent, you know, probably weeks going through the rubble. Are there things we can save? We were able to save a couple windows, most blew out from being burned. Firemen blew water through them… All the history, all the old bulletins, newsletters, contacts, all of the photo albums that have been put together, all of that was lost.”
Despite that devastation, the trials of McMechen didn’t end with the fire. The church was able to secure a space for worship at an elementary school soon after. About 2 months later, a flood swept through McMechen, and the church lost access to that space too. Not only that, but a number of the families were affected by the flood. While the church was in crisis, the families of the church also needed crisis relief themselves. Thankfully, a local Methodist church was willing to share space with the refugee congregation, for which Pastor Mitch expressed his gratitude.
But then a third disaster struck in September when Pastor Mitch suffered a stroke that would leave him unable to step into the pulpit for months. “It was almost the next summer by the time I got back into the pulpit,” Pastor Mitch recounted.
In the meantime, the elders of the church stepped up to preach and fill in on Sundays for about 7 months. And all the while, the church didn’t stop doing their typical outreach programs. They even passed out food from the corner where the church had been on Logan Street. The response from the community was incredulity.
"Your church is gone but you're still here?!" A community member asked.
We often say that the church isn’t the building, the people are. But rarely are we put in a situation that makes the distinction a lived experience. It’s this distinction that helped McMechen First Church of God carry out their mission through all of the trauma. “I've been trying to be the cheerleader of the church,” Pastor Mitch said. “We're still a church. We lost our building, but our church and our people are still here.”
Part of Pastor Mitch's cheerleading is recognizing both the church's success, and where it still needs help. Over the last 6 years, there has been a lot of grief in the church. The attachments to the past, to the church's history, and to the physicality of a shared communal space, all of that has left the church feeling anxious and worried. “There are so many layers [to grief]. There's the spiritual aspect, losing our church home, losing our own homes. Almost losing our pastor…” Pastor Mitch said. Because of this, the congregation has been intentionally focusing on dealing with and moving through their grief. They’ve purchased hundreds of books for the church to help process their spiritual and mental health as they move towards wholeness again, and Pastor Mitch has been sensitive to all of this.
As of March, this year, McMechen Church finally broke ground on their new building, and every day they get closer to reestablishing their church home. It won’t be like the old building. It probably won’t have large windows with stained glass, and it won’t have that commanding presence of a multi-story steeple that literally towers over the community. But that’s okay, because it’s not the building that the church is fixated on. It’s Christ.
“We are seeing a lot of hope, energy, and positive attitudes. People loosening up some finances. We've seen encouragement. People are anticipating, especially people in McMechen, some of them can get back to walking to church. They've missed that for 6 years,” Pastor Mitch said. “The church was the center of town, and the anticipation was that we'll be back in the center before too long.”
But Wait, There's More!
CGGC eNews—Vol. 27, No. 27