Faith in the midst of the fire

GUERNSEY – A trifecta of infamous incidents has occurred at Faith Fellowship Church that would have most people discouraged, shaking their fists at God and asking the question, “why?” The congregation of approximately 70 members at the church has not only weathered the storms, but they speak about opportunity, discipleship and evangelism as outcomes from adversity.

The most recent, the third in a serious of unfortunate incidents, happened at 11 p.m., March 16, in the parsonage where interim pastor Neal Hughes and his wife Deb were asleep, according to church Elder Blaine Ayers who is also the Senior Security adviser for Suncor Energy. The story really began a few hours earlier as Ayers recalled the events of the evening.

“It was Monday night and it was just a normal night,” Ayers said. “My wife and I went over because there was going to be a gathering for a small group but then with the coronavirus, we decided to cancel small groups, and so the interim pastor had already started to smoke a pork loin and we decided just to go over for dinner.”

After dinner and a pretty normal night, both couples had retired for the evening.

“Neal called me about 11:30 and said that the parsonage is on fire,” Ayers said. “So I got up and threw on some clothes and went down there.”

Ayers, who only lives a few blocks from the church, remembered seeing the smoke and flames as he was making the three-block trek to the church. He also commented about hearing gas explosions which were later identified as a truck and some propane tanks that were exploding.

“I got there, and sure enough, it was on fire,” Ayers said. “It was bad. The whole garage was pretty much engulfed when I got there and then it went up into the rafters. We know the point of origin was the garage, but as of yet, we don’t know exactly where or how the fire started. We’ll let the investigators figure all that out.”

From the rafters, the fire went up into the attic and all the way down to the other side of the home. Ayers said that when he got there, there was smoke coming out of the attic on the opposite side of the home for a short period of time before an explosion sent a burst of flames shooting out from the east side of the home’s attic.

“Here again,” Ayers continued, “had God not intervened, they would be dead.”

The Hughes had been fast asleep and ironically it was said that Neal Hughes could sleep through a fire. When it came to the actual event, it was discovered that he couldn’t.

“The way the fire went over the top of the house and then collapsed the roof down, the fire and the smoke alarms would not have gone off until it was too late,” Ayers said. “He says he never wakes up right away, although sometimes God wakes him up at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning. He said ‘it literally felt like something shook me’ and this was at 11:15 at night.”

Ayers said that God was directing Hughes to get up. Hughes at that point exited the bedroom and, in the hallway, could smell a burnt electrical odor and he initially thought it was coming from the basement. He was heading to the basement when he said, “Again I felt someone grab my shoulder and directed me to the garage.”

At that point there was no smoke in the house and Hughes did not realize that everything above the ceiling was an inferno. He first got his wife out and then had just enough time to get one of his two vehicles out that were in the midst of the flames in the garage. A propane explosion close to the second vehicle prevented him from rescuing it.

The Hughes were recently empty nesters with two dogs, and all got out of the fire safely.

“It’s a miracle, and you’re just thankful because as they were there, tires were popping and propane explosions, and nobody got hurt,” Ayers said. “I see God’s handprint all over this, because it was one of the nights that the wind wasn’t blowing. It was calm, and it was a little bit misty, so nothing else around it was touched."

By the time Ayers had arrived, the volunteer fire departments from Guernsey and Hartville were already on the scene battling the flames. To their credit, they had it contained in a little over an hour. Ayers estimated there were about a dozen firefighters at the scene.

“The fire department did a great job,” Ayers said, “and we want to make sure to commend them. We are also thankful that none of them got hurt.”

The 2,400 sq. ft parsonage, which was built just after the new millennium was an addition to the church which has been a fixture in the community for over 30 years.

“I was in on building the parsonage with a group of four or five of us 20 years ago,” Ayers said. “The parsonage idea came from a man named Gordon Stands who really felt like that’s what we needed to do to provide an incentive to get a pastor to come to a small town.”

The church was between pastors when the parsonage was built, and here, 20 years later, and the first in the series of unfortunate incidents was the fact the pastor left for another church just over a year ago. Thus, an interim pastor and his wife were occupying the parsonage.

As he reflected on the adversity the church has had to overcome, Ayers said, “Quite honestly, because of the coronavirus and everything else, you are kind of thinking, ‘what is God doing?’” Ayers said. “You’re kind of already in this mode, ‘man, God’s doin’ something, but it’s just… what is it?’

As churches I think we understand when we’re in this vulnerability of trying to find a pastor, we’re vulnerable to attack from the enemy and so some of me is like, OK, is this an attack? And if it is, I know God’s got this. And He wants us to watch Him work through us.”

The church, which associates with the Converged Rocky Mountain Church in Denver, has had much help in acquiring an interim pastor and helping with the candidate screening process for hiring a new pastor. Ayers emphasizes though that Faith Fellowship is an independent free evangelical church. The background of the church is predominantly Baptist in doctrine and up until six years ago operated under the moniker of Faith Baptist Church. The trend for many churches has been to move away from denominational tags within the last 10 years.

Ayers, commenting on the name Faith Fellowship said, “A lot of that (name change) was happening in the country because there is a stigmatism that I think misleads people when they say, ‘oh, you say you’re Baptist.’ That brings along a lot of connotations that aren’t necessarily good and they’re not necessarily true of us.”

The church has set up a parsonage fund account at the Banner Bank in Guernsey for anyone who would like to help out financially. At this point the church does not know how much the insurance will cover, so future plans for building another parsonage will hinge heavily upon the finances.

The church has lost their senior leadership in the form of a pastor, they have been without a pastor for over a year, then COVID-19 hits globally and boundaries and restrictions reach far into the small town communities such as Guernsey. And as for things happening in threes, the fire was a brutal third portion of their adversity.

Through it all, the church has become more unified, Ayers said. And they have had to really live up to the name on the sign outside of their building. It is taking every ounce of faith to remain standing in the midst of the ashes, but it’s God Himself who said through the prophet Isaiah, “To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the LORD that He may be glorified.”

“Our pastor, the coronavirus and this on top of it,” Ayers said, “If we can manage this and we can manage to stay with God and let Him work through us and Him get the glory, I think we are going to see a lot of really great fruit out of it.”

Faith Fellowship church is located at 600 W. Chugwater Street in Guernsey and with COVID-19 still prompting the government to make restrictions, their phone number is (307)836-2217 to find out information as to service times and small group meetings.


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