By Jim Nieman
A storm that rolled through eastern Tennessee late Friday night tore the roof off of part of Love Chapel Christian Church in Erwin, leaving tons of debris and causing extensive water damage. No one was hurt.
The integrity of the original 1953 church structure is still being assessed, senior minister Robert Bess said Tuesday, but an adjoining, 1960s-era, rectangular addition that includes classrooms, a nursery, restrooms, and an office is a total loss.
In all likelihood, the church will need to relocate for a period of months while repairs are made and new construction occurs, said Bess, who added that damages are estimated at “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The rebuilding plans haven’t been decided, but Bess took a philosophical view: “We’re going to be able to make some long-needed changes. This will likely turn into a vision thing.”
The damage occurred at about 11:15 Friday night.
“The roof [of the addition] peeled back” and there was damage to the ceiling and walls, he said.
Bess said he was notified of the damage shortly after it occurred, and he and some others immediately went to the church and removed computers, TVs, DVD players, and certain other valuables from the addition. That was a good thing because heavy rains occurred overnight.
Bess said, “The insurance adjuster was out Monday. He said, ‘Yeah, none of this is going to survive.’”
Bess initially had high hopes of preserving the original building and its sanctuary (which was featured on a Christian Standard cover in 1953, he said), but his confidence is waning.
“The main building kind of survived,” Bess said, “but more and more moisture is seeping through as the days go by.” The roof needs to be replaced, at the very least.
The response of the church and community have been fantastic, he said.
“Volunteers removed nine tons of debris on Saturday,” Bess said. “We were able to clean up the outside in one day. I thought it was going to take a week.
“People we didn’t even know were stopping by and helping. It’s that kind of community,” he said. “We had like 50 people here working at one point on Saturday.” (Here are before-and-after pictures of the church exterior, taken at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday.)
The church conducted services on Sunday. Fortunately, another freestanding building on the property was undamaged; it houses the church’s Connection Café, where two of the church’s three Sunday services typically take place. (Click here to read a 2014 Christian Standard article about Connection Café.)
But the Connection Café venue is small—70 people is a crowd—and the church averages 150 to 160 on Sundays, and occasionally exceeds 200.
And there are additional issues: On Sunday, children had to have classes outside (which works only if the weather is good), there are seven babies but suddenly no nursery, and the restroom situation is now inadequate.
“It’s not sustainable as a long-term situation.”
Bess said he expects to worship at the site for two more weekends, “and then, most likely, we’re going to rent and relocate temporarily while we figure things out.”
The church’s temporary home will likely be in Love Chapel Elementary School, which is a community school, not an affiliated church school. Bess is unsure of what will need to happen at the existing church site, or how long the congregation will need to worship elsewhere, though he expects it will be at least six to nine months.
“We probably don’t have as much [insurance] as we need to replace everything,” Bess said. “We started a building fund about a year ago, so that will help.”
But Bess remains confident in the future of the church, which has grown from averaging 35 to almost 160 in the 10 years he has been there.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.
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