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Fire can’t shake faith of Rocky Creek Presbyterian

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By Don Worthington

Sunday, July 1, marked the beginning of Farrar Griggs’ seventh year as pastor of Rocky Creek Presbyterian Church on Johnson Road near Jefferson.
On a normal Sunday, Griggs would have been in the pulpit of the historic church. In 1903, church members built a sanctuary on the Johnson Road site. The church traces its beginnings to about 1850, said Griggs.
But that Sunday, Griggs had arranged to stay at his home in Kannapolis, N.C., celebrating the day with four adult children, including Emily, who has been a missionary in North Africa for the past 10 years.
Plans changed with a simple text message. “The church is on fire.”
Father and daughter jumped in the car for the 90-minute ride on U.S. 601, not knowing what they would find in Jefferson. As they drove, Griggs scripted a sermon he didn’t know if he would get to preach. His daughter scribbled his thoughts on a napkin.
They arrived to find Simpson Hall, the church’s fellowship building, on fire and the flames threatening the sanctuary. Firefighters from Sandhill and Hartsville volunteer fire departments battled the blaze. It was Sandhill Fire Chief Tommy Catoe who discovered the fire and called it in, Griggs said.
Later Griggs and his congregation learned that the fire started about 8:30 p.m. Saturday, possibly by a lightning strike. It smoldered for several hours before erupting in the fellowship hall named in honor of Cornelius and Lucy Simpson.
By 7 a.m. the fire was through the fellowship hall roof and nearing the sanctuary. The roof of the fellowship hall collapsed, vinyl siding was either melted or warped and there was significant smoke damage to the sanctuary.
The damage is estimated at $1.25 million, said Griggs. The fellowship hall is a total loss, and the sanctuary will have to be stripped to its brick walls and rebuilt. Thankfully, said Griggs, the church has insurance.
But the church will be without a home for about nine months, he said. This past Sunday the congregation met at the home of one of its members. Future services will be at the Jefferson Community Center, said Griggs. Bible study classes will be held at members’ homes.  
When Griggs arrived at the church that Sunday, his first thoughts were “they don’t train you for this at seminary.” Griggs attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte.
Those thoughts were quickly replaced with what Griggs called “one of those God moments.”
He walked among his congregation, visitors and neighbors.  “Some of them had been members of this church for 50 years,” said Griggs. “It was a sad, emotional, heartbreaking time.”
Heartbreak was quickly replaced. Griggs said it was his duty to “restore optimism.”
“It wasn’t hard to do,” said Griggs.  “A church is not a building, it is the people. I didn’t have to preach that to them. It was obvious.
“We bonded more tightly than we thought we could. We will be fine.”
Later that Sunday, Griggs gave the sermon composed on the ride from Kannapolis.
The congregation, visitors and firefighters walked to the nearby lake where the church normally holds its Easter service. Amid the trees are three wooden crosses signifying the resurrection.
They sat on chairs brought by members of Macedonia Baptist Church, also on Johnson Road.
Griggs looked at the napkin and began to preach. He spoke about Job and his trials, an example of worshipping God through the toughest times. He traced the beginnings of the Christian church, quoting from Acts where Paul wrote that the fellowship of believers “broke bread in houses with glad and sincere hearts.”
Griggs’ final Bible verse came from Mark, Chapter 13, about the eternity of God’s word. “Heaven and Earth will pass away, but my word will never pass away.”
“It was,” said Griggs, “the best church service I’ve ever been involved with.”
After the service Griggs finally relaxed enough to eat a cheeseburger. He was approached by two sets of people he knew were not church members. Each said, “When you get the time I need to talk.” Unsaid, Griggs noted, was “they wanted to talk about joining the church.”
Griggs said he too realized it was time to make a commitment. Before the fire, Griggs, 69, had been reviewing all he had done in his six years at the church. He asked himself: Was it time to leave? Had he accomplished all he could at Rocky Creek Presbyterian Church?
Then came the text.
Then came his walk among his congregation.
Then came his sermon.
Then Griggs realized, “I have a new job and I don’t even have to change my address.” He too renewed his commitment.

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