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After Fire Burns Oklahoma Meetinghouse, Community Steps in to Help


This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Christine Rappleye, Church News

In the weeks since Altus Ward Bishop John “Johnny” Barron spent a Sunday morning watching an Oklahoma fire burn the meetinghouse, he’s seen and felt the support of the local community.

“I’ve been super-impressed with the outpouring of support from the community,” Bishop Barron said of the response to the Sunday, January 31, fire. “We had eight different places offering space for us. Four of them are churches.

“And then there are people who have reached [out] to me and said that, ‘We’ve prayed for you in church.’ People have asked how they can donate to our building fund. It’s just touching to see how the community takes this personally … and sees our church as part of the community.”

A fire burns the Altus Ward building in Altus, Oklahoma, on Sunday, January 31, 2021. Photo courtesy of John Barron, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Early January 31, no one was in the building. Bishop Barron received a call a little after 7 a.m. from the police department telling him his church was on fire.

“I just watched the building burn and cried about it,” Bishop Barron said. “They poured water on the building for eight hours.”

“We were really touched with how the firemen were trying to salvage what they could from the building,” Bishop Barron said.

The firefighters took the art that hadn’t been burned and laid it out on the grass, he said.

One painting of the Savior in Gethsemane, from the bishop’s office, had burn marks around the frame but wasn’t damaged. There are plans to present it to the fire department’s chaplain once the weather is warm enough to have the event outdoors.

The firefighters also cleaned and returned a U.S. flag that was folded in the clerks’ office.

“We just appreciate everything they did,” Bishop Barron said of the firefighters.

A clock in the Altus Ward building was damaged during a fire on Sunday, January 31, 2021, in Altus, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of John Barron, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

The cause of the fire was electrical, and it started at the outlet in the front lobby, said Bishop Barron, who is the city’s public works director and city engineer.

Of the eight places that offered space to the Church, the ward council decided to try out Grace United Methodist Church and a local event center for a week. Then, the ward council members will meet to decide in which place the ward will meet.

Bishop Barron said one way the ward has built relationships with Methodist church members and other churches is through the local group Church Women United, which sponsors community service projects.

The Altus Ward building was built in the early to mid-1970s. Since then, there have been two expansions, the most recent in 1996, according to Bishop Barron. The ward covers five counties in southwestern Oklahoma and includes Altus Air Force Base.

“You have so many memories,” said longtime ward member Patsy Rivera, 81, who remembers when the branch met in a rented building before the meetinghouse was built. “You make friends, and I was a Young Women president for years. You just have so many memories from there and you’re heartbroken.”

Firefighters spray water on the fire at the Altus Ward building on January 31, 2021, in Altus, Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of John Barron, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

When the Altus Ward started in-person Sunday meetings at the end of summer 2020, half of the ward attended in the building, and there was a virtual option for members to watch from home. Recently, missionaries had taught English classes twice a week, and youth activities had been held periodically.

Bishop Barron has been working with area leaders on the rebuilding of the meetinghouse.

Ward members have started salvaging bricks from the building and have collected about 600 they hope can be used — for example, in a patio — on the next building.

“We wanted to have something to remember the original building,” Bishop Barron said.

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