For the first time in nearly 150 years, the St. John Baptist Church choir members stood on stage behind their pastor as he preached the good news to his vibrant congregation. But the journey to that joyous occasion began with destruction.
Around dinner time on February 24, 2016, the howling winds of an EF-3 tornado ripped 145-year-old St. John Baptist Church apart, reducing it to rubble. “All that was left standing was the pulpit and the pastor’s study,” shared Evangelist Jonathan Mercer, who lives across the street from the sanctuary.
“It was well over 100 years old. It was totally destroyed.”
The church was one of 89 homes or buildings affected by the storm, and one of 33 facilities destroyed, according to Essex County officials. Members were distraught when they heard the news. Church treasurer, Anthony Washington, recalls weeping the first time he saw the church after the storm. “It was well over 100 years old. It was totally destroyed,” Washington said. Thankfully, church officials received enough warning to cancel that evening’s regular Bible study, and no one was inside the building when the tornado hit.
St. John Baptist’s congregation was neither hopeless, nor alone. The very next day, community members and a local non-profit crisis response team called God’s Pit Crew began hauling away debris and restoring the site to wholeness. Various churches and organizations even offered to help financially.
The funds the church received from Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company because of their ministry-specific property insurance coverage allowed St. John Baptist to not only rebuild, but improve the structure. The church chose to use steel, rather than the traditional stick framing, to protect against any future storms. And community donations enabled them to upgrade the new building with extra space and amenities.
The church’s agent, David Rogers – Sanford Agency, was with them through every step of the restoration process. “We felt like we were more than a claim. We were being cared for, and he had a deep personal concern for our ministry,” remarked treasurer, Anthony Washington.
“We felt like we were more than a claim. We were being cared for.”
“We feel like we can do more - reach out to our community - because of our new building.”
Since the church has rebuilt, members have sensed a renewed energy and focus. “We feel like we can do more – reach out into the community – because of our new building,” said George Johnson, church trustee. The congregation held a three-day celebration for the reconstruction of their church home. The sanctuary was bursting with joy as they held their first service. You could hear the excitement in the unified voice of the choir, taking their places behind the pulpit where they always wished to be if they had the space. And their agent, David Rogers, was there in the pews, worshipping right beside them.
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