On Thursday, an important part of our community was destroyed.
Early in the afternoon, as storms were rolling into the area, officials say a lightning strike set the Ararat Missionary Baptist Church building on Jones School Road ablaze. Firefighters arrived on the scene within minutes and, at first, had hoped to be able to bring the blaze under control, though significant damage was evident even as the firefighters.
Unfortunately, the flames had crept into so many nooks and crannies, even dancing along just under the roof line of the build as fire officials put out parts of the blaze in the front of the building. Just as they seemingly extinguished that portion of the fire, new flames shot high into the air from the rear of the building.
Despite their efforts, the structure was a total loss by the time all was said and done.
Any fire, and the resulting loss, is tragic. Fire, whether it takes place in a home, church, or business, destroys the tangible, visible records of a life lived there. Photos, diaries, records, clothes, books, computers — it is all lost during a blaze as hot and intense as the one that struck Ararat Missionary Baptist Church.
In some ways, a fire that wipes out a church building is even more tragic. Churches are often the true centerpiece of a community, where people gather regularly to rejoice at the good times, mourn during the bad. They share their lives, the raising of their children, their golden years as elders able to offer quiet love and advice to those coming along behind them.
In a very real way, churches are the foundation a community is built upon, not only for their spiritual influence on a community, but because they are social centers, places people identify with, where a kind of collective memory and consciousness builds.
It is all the more difficult when a church with the history of Ararat Missionary Baptist Church loses its building. The structure, by many accounts, was more than a century old. As a primarily black church, it stood as a place of strength for many during significant changes in society, serving as that community focal point during times of great upheaval over the past half century. During that building’s time the Civil Rights Act became the law of the land and, gradually, even begrudgingly, the local community began to treat people of all ethnic backgrounds equally.
What is important to remember is that, while the building is the tangible, physical representation of the church, the people meeting there, the ones gathering regularly to worship and support one another are the true church.
Over the years, as has been the case with many such institutions, the membership there has dwindled. We don’t know if the members of the church will seek to rebuild the structure, if they will continue meeting in rented, or donated locations, or if this is the end of the church.
If the members opt to rebuild, we hope other churches and organizations will step forward and lend support — money, labor, whatever is needed. And if they opt not to rebuild, we hope other churches will welcome their members with open arms.
What we do know is that no matter what their choice, Ararat Missionary Baptist Church will always have a special place in the history of Mount Airy and Surry County, and especially in the lives of all those who called the place their church home.