Bethel AME Church in Lebanon is small – just a couple dozen people make up what the pastor calls a “vital and active congregation” – but members try to play a big role in helping those in need in Warren County.
So when flames engulfed the church Dec. 13, the congregation found itself on the unusual end of receiving help in the last two weeks before Christmas.
“It has been a heartwarming and soulful experience to see the outpouring from the community,” Pastor Karen Schaeffer said.
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The late-night fire, caused by an electrical issue, destroyed everything inside the building, including donations to be made to members of the community and to families from the Lebanon Food Pantry that the church had “adopted” for Christmas, plus costumes and props for the annual children’s program to be put on Christmas Eve. Bethel AME also had nowhere to host its weekly community meals for those in need.
But local businesses and neighboring churches saw that the church was hurting.
Last weekend, the church held a collection drive in the Lebanon Theatre Company building, and 59 individuals and businesses and “just about every church in town” donated to help Bethel AME, Schaeffer said.
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Lowe’s donated 14 Christmas trees for the families Bethel AME had “adopted.” Kroger and the Lebanon Elks Society donated food, and other people donated canned goods.
“We sent families home with enough food for several meals,” said Raye Kimberlin, trustee and lifelong member of the church.
Bethel AME received so many donations that they were able to give to two other churches and Prodigal Son Ministries.
“We have had more than enough help,” Kimberlin said. “The community has really wrapped its arms around us.”
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Wayne Dunn offered Lebanon Theatre Company’s space to Bethel AME for their children’s program. The music director for Lebanon Theatre Company, Jay Mills, is also the pianist for Bethel AME. It just seemed like the natural thing to do, Dunn said.
“I told the mayor that I’m not surprised at all the help they’ve gotten. Lebanon will protect its own,” Dunn said. “The congregation (of Bethel AME) is well know and well respected in the community.”
Schaeffer still gets choked up when looking at the building where so many fond memories were made.
Everything is burned to a crisp, the ceiling is now on the floor and the windows are boarded up at 111 N. Cherry Street. Black marks where flames licked at the roof of the building serve as a reminder of what happened there.
“Our hearts are broken, but our God is greater than this,” said Schaeffer.
There are several ways to donate to the church listed on its website, Schaeffer said.
“We’re going to be OK,” said Schaeffer. “The church is still intact because the church is the people.”