Strangely enough, the fire has recentered people on the hope of the gospel. God’s timing is infinitely kind. I think this could be a severe mercy from the Lord and may open up tremendous opportunities. When we were sitting on folding chairs in the fellowship hall on Sunday, I thought, This feels like a church plant to me.
The 911 call came in just before 11:00 p.m. last Saturday.
Someone driving by the historic College Hill Presbyterian Church in Oxford, Mississippi—the one founded nearly 180 years ago, the one that served as a Civil War hospital, the one where William Faulkner got married—had spotted smoke.
Firefighters arrived within a few minutes, but the building—including the original pulpit and pews—was already aflame.
“The fire was in full blaze by midnight,” said Clint Wilcke, who works as catalyst for the Mid-South Church Planting Network of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Since College Hill Presbyterian is between pastors, he also preaches there a few times a month, organizes their pulpit supply, and shepherds the elders and staff. “It seems there was an electrical fire in the back of the church, but it’s still under investigation.”
Wilcke’s phone was set to silent, so he didn’t hear the news until he saw a morning text from a friend. “So sorry to hear about College Hill,” it said.
Uh-oh, Wilcke thought. What’s he talking about?
“I reached out to some folks, and we drove straight there,” he said.
He remembers pulling in. “I thought there would be more of a structure left,” he said. “It was hard to look at—just devastating. It was a complete ruin.”
The brick walls, which had been reinforced in the 1940s, were still standing. But the interior walls and roof and original wood pews were ashes. The communion table and hymnals and stained glass windows were gone. The pulpit was a charred stump.
But not all was lost. No one was hurt. One of the firefighters grabbed the Bible from the pulpit—the Bible pastors had been marking up and preaching from since the 1860s. And the fellowship hall, which had been built much later, was untouched in a separate building 200 yards away.
That’s where College Hill Presbyterian Church met on Sunday, seven hours after the fire was extinguished.
The Gospel Coalition asked Wilcke about that service, the reaction of the congregation, and how he’s seen God’s faithfulness over the past week.
What was the church service like on Sunday?
A lot of people were flat-out weeping and really struggling, because they were married in that church, and baptized there, and came to Christ there. Place matters.
But there was also tons of hope and encouragement. The elders have done a good job of listening and praying and coming alongside the members. The longest-standing ruling elder, Bill, was preaching that morning. He never even went out to the fire; when he heard about it, he knew he had to work on the sermon instead. I really appreciated his focus.
Some of the other elders went out to the fire and then put together emails in the middle of the night. Sunday morning, everyone jumped in—moving chairs and hymnals over to the fellowship hall. There was some crying and hugging and looking at the ruins in disbelief, but then everyone was focused on worship.
Bill’s texts were Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:15–22, and 1 Peter 2:4–10. He did a great job celebrating the history of God’s work and reminding us that we are the church, the building, the body, the bride of Christ.