Gatlinburg, Tenn. — Roaring Fork Baptist Church’s congregation is still standing.
Its sanctuary and family life center are not.
The deadly wildfire that tore through Gatlinburg early last week destroyed the Southern Baptist church’s buildings. While their lives were spared, about a half-dozen members lost their homes, and others are waiting to find out if they’ve lost their jobs.
Despite the catastrophic loss, the heartbroken congregation rose to its feet Sunday morning and praised God just as they had on countless Sunday mornings before the fire. Rain hit the roof of their new, but temporary home at a Christian summer camp northeast of the tourist town as the Rev. Kim McCroskey vowed to continue their vibrant ministry.
“We have not quit. All the devil did was make me hate him worse. I promise this — when my feet hit the floor in the morning, hell’s going to go on red alert,” said McCroskey, during the first service after the blaze.
Roaring Fork Baptist was one of a handful of Gatlinburg churches charred the night of Nov. 28 when hurricane-force winds fanned a small fire in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park into an inferno that killed at least 14 people, scorched nearly 18,000 acres, and damaged or destroyed more than 1,600 homes and businesses.
The congregation, which numbers about 200 for weekend services, was only homeless for about 12 hours, McCroskey said. The Sevier County Association of Baptists invited them to worship at Camp Smoky, the association’s Christian retreat center off of State Route 454. It’s about a six-mile drive from the Roaring Fork neighborhood, allowing the congregation to continue its outreach to tourists as well as its bus ministry that brings Gatlinburg children to services.
Members young and old unloaded from buses and personal vehicles Sunday morning. They dodged cold raindrops as they entered the simple, yellow building where metal folding chairs lined the concrete floors, greeting each other with hugs and well wishes. The fire dominated conversations as they drank coffee and made sure everyone had a Bible and hymnal in hand.
Many on Sunday morning made a point to check in with Andy and Gina Clabo, who lost the house they've lived in for 22 years to the fire. The memories of their Monday-night escape from the blaze are raw. Church was exactly where they needed to be on Sunday morning.
"I knew I had to come here," Gina Clabo said. "Even though we have no home, we have each other. And everybody has been so supportive."
McCroskey preached about the tragedy of the fire, but his voice swelled with optimism and encouragement as he spoke about the church's future. As they move forward from the fire, the congregation has an opportunity to be an example to the community about the power of God's positive influence, he said.
“We’re God’s church. Fire couldn’t take that away. Fire can’t take our resolve away,” McCroskey said. “I’m weak in the knees and overwhelmed with grief about what’s happened, but I’m also overwhelmed with joy about seeing all of you here today."
What’s left of the church’s buildings at 216 Church St. will be cleared so rebuilding can begin. Before the fire, the congregation actually had planned on expanding. They were outgrowing their former space after successful outreach under McCroskey’s nine-year tenure as pastor. He anticipates construction will go quickly, and hopes to be worshiping in a new building by end of 2017. Until then, Camp Smoky will be their home.
While they're happy to have it, church member Ronnie Bilbrey is keeping it all in perspective. A building doesn't make a church, he explained .
"We're the church," Bilbrey said.