I have struggled with how to write this part of the story. For me, it is the part that I will hold most dear in my heart.
The beginning - waking up and facing the news, being pulled over by the cop, seeing it for the first time - was all done through the lens of my grown up eyes. As unfathomable as the events were, I could still process them as an adult. I could recognize the feeling of loss and grief. I had been there before, they were familiar.
But this part, the part of telling our children, was what I dreaded most.
They've never experienced a loved one dying. They've never experienced divorce. And I am grateful for those things, but I also had no way of knowing what this news was going to be like for them.
I knew, throughout the day, that people in their school knew of the fire. I was terrified of them hearing about it from someone other than us.
Our congregation had already established with we would have a service that evening in the yard across the street from the church and I wanted them to have that time together.
I picked them up from school and we sat on the bench under the tree out front. Or I should say, Q and I sat on the bench. The girls stood in front of me because they were terrified when I told them we needed to talk before leaving.
And so I just came right out with it...
....there was an accident...I don't know how it happened...or why...but last night there was a fire and our church burned....
Casey recognized and processed with words immediately and began sobbing.
Chandler stood there. Frozen. "What church? What church burned? Whose church?," she demanded.
Chan, Honey, our church.
Her chin quivered and her face crumpled and the tears began to flow down her cheeks.
Quinn wasn't really sure what was going on, but he knew it wasn't good. He began a whining cry, almost like he was scared, scared that both of his sisters fell apart before him.
Do you want to see it?
Do you want to go over there?
Casey immediately said yes, but Chandler shook her head. No. No, I don't want to see it.
But I explained that we had enough time to go there, take a few minutes by ourselves, then go out to eat and then come back for the service.
So we did.
I parked in the lot across the street. We walked, holding hands, to the sidewalk and stared. They all leaned into me and cried. I held Quinn in my arms and the girls pressed their bodies to me. I kissed their foreheads.
Everything will be ok. We know that the church is not the Pastor and the church is not the building. The church is...
and Chandler, in a barely audible whisper, finished, "...the people. The church is the people."
We stood for a minute longer. Then we loaded back into the car and drove down Poplar where you could see so clearly into our beautiful sanctuary. Where you could see the heart of the damage. The fallen roof. The broken windows. The destruction. Casey gasped just as I had and Chandler leaned her head on the window of the backseat and cried some more.
After dinner, we made our way to the yard of the old parsonage building where we all gathered together. I was so glad to see my in-laws as we pulled in. (Chris had to teach class that night.) At the prayer gathering, people stood and shared stories of what the building meant to them, what they were going to miss most, etc. It felt very much like something you would do when you lose a loved one. Because that's what this building was - a loved one.
Chandler took the microphone and in front of our congregation with the backdrop of the burned out building, Chandler spoke of how she felt loved by everyone in that building. That she remembered being baptized in first grade and how Pastor Lisa told her that God loved her and blessed her. And Chan cried.
The next morning, the Athens Banner Herald published an article about it - with this picture on the front page of the paper...
...and my heart broke all over again.
Quinn has spoken of the fire almost everyday since it happened. He continues to remind us that it will all be ok. He tells us, "We will webuild."
And we will. In the meantime, our church has become Oconee Street on Prince - meeting in the gymnasium of Young Harris Methodist Church.
The day the rebuilding begins (and the day that it ends) will all be bittersweet days in this journey.