By MARINA WATERS
Steve Hartley has been a recent visiting preacher at Oakland Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Telford. Hartley is also a volunteer firefighter for the Limestone Volunteer Fire Department. But never did he imagine he would be filling both of those roles at the same place and time.
On Wednesday, Jan. 10 just after 6 p.m., the church was ravaged by a fire that claimed the majority of the building. Hartley arrived on the scene with the Limestone VFD to see the church at which he had recently preached surrounded by flames.
“When you see something like that, whether its a church or a house, it kind of gives you a sick feeling in your stomach,” Hartley said. “But knowing that it was a church and me being a preacher — my heart went out to the congregation.”
Limestone’s Fire Chief Steve Archer said the fire was an accident that sparked from the church’s breaker box. Jonesborough, Sulphur Springs, Greeneville and Nolichuckey firefighters were also on the scene to fight the fire. No one was injured.
The Herald & Tribune sat down with Hartley a few days after the fire — and after he preached the following Sunday in the only building on the property that was salvaged, the fellowship hall.
“You had asked me a question: ‘What was it like to stand there and preach Sunday and have to fight a fire on the next Sunday?’ I studied on that for a couple days and I remembered there was one point where I went back in the church to fight the fire,” Hartley explained. “All I could do was sit down on the stage and just think about the devastation and the hurt this congregation was going to be going through.
“We had a lesson out of Daniel that says that faith that is not tested is withered. I told them this is God’s test for them to rebuild and to come back even stronger — and to be a light to the community.”
Hartley made entry into the building that night to fight the fire, but he was also able to be there for the congregation he had gathered with just days before..
“I’m glad I was able to be there. I was able to take a break from the fire fighting part of it and go over to the congregation that was there and have prayer with them,” Hartley said. “In a way, I hope I comforted them by them seeing me there and caring enough to come over and comfort them even while we were still putting the hot spots out.”
Though the historical church suffered a great deal of damage, the fellowship hall currently serves as the meeting place for the congregation. Hartley said, though the circumstances weren’t ideal, the service on Sunday after the fire felt like the group hadn’t stepped foot from their typical Sunday meeting place.
“It was just as if we were in the church, just as I preached on,” Hartley said. “In 1 Corinthians 3:9 it says that we are God’s building. I told them it didn’t matter where we met or how we met, but as long as we were together that we could have church.”
Hartley wasn’t alone in that feeling; Wayne Ruppert is a full-time attendee of the church and is in charge of lining up a pastor to preach each Sunday.
“I stood up and told them, ‘There’s only one way to describe the sermon that we had today and that was ‘hallelujah,’ Ruppert said. “He reached the hearts of all of us on Sunday.”
Though the church is still grappling with the damage, church members are looking to carry on as what they consider is truly “a church.”
“The church building it just that, a building,” Ruppert said. “The church is made up of a congregation and the church is in our hearts. And that congregation at the Oakland Church is full of spirit, full of life and we will continue on, whatever it takes.
“With God’s love and support, in the near future, we should be back on the hill. Just pray for us. Just ask everybody to pray for us.”
As for Hartley, he doesn’t accept his role as a firefighter, paramedic or part-time preacher as something he himself is able to complete; that, he said, is just another of God’s blessings in his life.
“Anytime I get to share what God’s done for me or pray for somebody, it’s a humbling experience,” Hartley said. “But to be able to help the church, preach with them, pray with them and work as a volunteer fireman — I’m blessed to be able to do that.”