Five days after the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Salters was destroyed by fire, the Rev. O’tis Prioleau prepared to give a sermon on the ash-laden lawn. The interior of his truck was his study. His robe was the first one he owned as the others were burned in the fire. The original church bell and memories of the 1700’s House of God were all that was left.
The weather was forgiving and he preached a message of keeping relevant to God. “The message was not to be so fixated on the church,” said Prioleau.
At the same time, Kingstree First Baptist Church Pastor Ian Geimer and his congregation had learned about the tragic event. Knowing the congregation was without a place of worship, Pastor Geimer reached out to his counterpart and offered use of the International Baptist Mission Church on Academy Street in Kingstree. “As a pastor, I can only imagine what Brother O’tis was about to walk through when it comes to shepherding or leading your people through such a tragedy,” he recalled. “Our church’s desire and our hopes in times of tragedy, in times of need in our community, is that we would be a church that not only loves God the right way but we love our neighbors the right way.”
First Baptist Church has ownership of the Mission church on North Academy Street, which years ago, served a large Hispanic population. As the population dwindled, the building ultimately became unused but was maintained. Prioleau welcomed the offer, as his church cannot begin rebuilding until a formal investigation is complete.
A worship service was conducted on July 28, and the church was filled with members. However, they went a step further. On Sunday, August 4, the two churches came together at the First Baptist Church to worship, sing and take part in fellowship.
The service impacted many. “It was absolutely amazing,” said Lee Whetsell, who has been a member of the First Baptist Church for over 30 years. “It got us out of our comfort zone. It provided us with a different way to look at worship and it was one of the most uplifting experiences.” She said she would like to see a joint service every quarter as she has made new relationships through the process. “It all brought us a little closer and a better understanding of cultural differences and appreciation.”
Sharonda Nelson sings in the Bethlehem Church Choir and also has gained new friends. “It was a great experience,” said Nelson who has been a member of the church for over 35 years. “We all just blended our voices together and we sang praises to the Lord.” Nelson was amazed how two different styles could come together. “We sing one way and they sing another way but we came together and put it all together and worked it out.”
The congregation will return to Mission Church to worship on a weekly basis but August 4, will be remembered as a perfect picture of true brotherly love. “It actually solidifies God’s purpose,” said Prioleau. “When something happens, most people tend to ask the question, “Why.” The Lord didn’t allow us to even go through that because, at the same time we’re dealing with this fire, God is dealing with this man of God concerning us.” Prioleau also knew it was God’s plan all along. “During the process, I have never, not one time, said Lord what are we going to do?”