Conway

After Christmas Eve fire destroyed Conway church, congregation remains undeterred, hopeful

A fire destroyed Providence Church’s building on Christmas Eve.

The man accused of setting it was staying in a hotel room the church paid for.

There’s no guarantee where the group of some 40-60 worshipers will meet in the coming months.

And yet the congregation remains hopeful.

“It’s been interesting to hear people say, ‘I would be angry,’” said Greg Thompson, who leads the church’s music ministry. “We have those moments, too. We have those moments of anger and sadness and uncertainty. What are we doing Sunday? What are we doing the Sunday after that? We don’t know. [But] if we can’t believe in God’s faithfulness when we’ve lost faith in everything else, then what’s the point of our faith at all?”

Pastor Victor Crawford first heard about the fire from his brother.

Crawford had just arrived home from a family gathering and was finishing up with presents. Coincidentally, the preacher’s 4-year-old son Miles was playing with a karaoke machine and had wrapped up his rendition of the Christian song “Set a Fire” when the phone rang.

Crawford quickly drove to the scene. He and other members watched firefighters douse the flames.

Initially, the congregation had no clue what caused the blaze. But when firefighters allowed them to walk through the property, they noticed some things were missing.

Thompson asked the firefighters if they’d moved his guitar. They said they hadn’t touched anything.

The keyboard, a television and sound equipment also were missing.

“The whole tenor of things kind of shifted from there,” Thompson said.

The church had been trying to help a local homeless man get back on his feet. One of the church members knew 43-year-old Bobby Lee Barfield and when the weather turned cold in the fall the church allowed him to stay in the shed behind the main building.

Barfield had a vehicle, but he told church leaders that his wife and children were coming to town for Christmas and she would not let him see his kids unless he had a place for them to stay. So the church rented Barfield a hotel room and gave him money for gas and food.

When Horry County police went to the hotel to interview Barfield after the fire, they found some of the church’s equipment still in his vehicle.

Barfield was charged with third-degree arson, second-degree burglary and grand larceny.

Police say Barfield stole the items from the church, then poured out lacquer inside the building and lit it.

He remains incarcerated at the J. Reuben Long Detention Center.

Despite the charges, Providence’s members say they harbor no ill feelings toward Barfield.

“Once I found out how it was caused, I felt pity and concern the individual who set the fire and have been praying for him,” said Jerry Hardy, who has been attending Providence for three years. “To the world, to the unbeliever, that sounds really crazy. But I immediately felt that God’s hand was in this and that he had a handle [on the situation]. ... I immediately had this overwhelming feeling that God’s going to use this some way. I don’t know how. I don’t know what the future looks like. But I know that God’s in control of it.”

Crawford said he feels the same way.

“Bobby’s in a darker place than we find ourselves in,” he said. “We have no building, but he’s struggling. He’s in a hard, dark place. Really, I feel for him.”

Since the fire, Providence’s pastors have been asked if the church feels like a doormat: used, unappreciated, trampled on.

Thompson dismisses that criticism. He points to Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

“When you look at scripture, Jesus said, so what if you love somebody who loves you? What good is that?” Thompson said. “It’s easy to love those who return it. ... Biblical love in action is not only doing for those who can’t repay you, but who sometimes repay you in a negative way.”

So will the church scale back its ministry because of the fire?

Not a chance, the pastors said.

“We do our service unto the Lord,” Crawford said.

Members are also quick to highlight the outpouring of support they’ve received since Christmas Eve.

Other churches have offered space. Some have donated chairs. Four congregations showed up on the first Saturday after the fire to clean up the gutted building.

One of Thompson’s friends stopped by to hand him cash last week. Crawford got a call from a man offering a spare subwoofer.

Providence members insist such generosity dispels the notion that the church is merely a physical structure.

“It was just a building that was destroyed,” Hardy said.

On Sunday, the congregation gathered at Ignite Church, a Myrtle Beach house of worship pastored by Jim Neece, who helped Crawford start Providence.

“I said, ‘Just come and preach our service and we’ll do a love offering for you and we’ll bless you,’” Neece said. “The body of Christ needs to work together.”

Neece said he’s also worked with ministries for the homeless and the events of the last few weeks shouldn’t deter the church from its mission of caring for the poor.

“Unfortunately, you get burned, but you do it for the right reasons,” he said. “It’s through their love for trying to help people that this unfortunate thing happened. But we don’t blame them. We don’t blame God. We just keep going on doing what we need to do. Not because it’s easy. Because it’s right.”

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