When an arsonist attempted to destroy Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on Hwy. 29 in Gainesville, Virginia, on Aug. 10, 2012, to the outside observer driving by the building, it could be easy to assume the arsonist had won — for the last 10-plus years, the building has remained vacant, with not a single service being held.
But not is all that it seems.
What the arsonist attempted to destroy was a building, but in a miraculous turn of events, God has taken those ashes to build His Church — with an Assemblies of God church in the middle of His plans.
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church
In 2010, George Carlisle began his first pastorate, taking the helm of the historic Mount Pleasant Baptist Church. The congregation was not extreme in size, running about 85 or so, but the roots of the parishioners were often many generations deep, some able to trace their heritage to the founding of the church shortly after the Civil War.
The present site of the church building goes back to 1882 when the three acres the church is built on was purchased by former slaves for $10. The congregation met in an old log cabin for decades before the current building was erected in 1928. And the church cemetery behind the building is filled with relatives and reminders of the church’s incredibly rich legacy and challenges overcome.
However, when the arsonist struck, the church was underinsured as the value had increased significantly since the time it had last been appraised. In addition, now the building had to be brought up to the current building codes and connected to county sewer and water located at the back of the three-acre property — all which carried hefty price tags.
An inexperienced minister, a significant shortfall in funds needed to rebuild, a small congregation, and no rich benefactors. To those unfamiliar with Mount Pleasant, it may have appeared the arsonist had taken the life of a church.
“We were thankful and grateful when we discovered what happened,” Carlisle curiously says about the fire, then explains, “God spared the lives of all of our parishioners — we could have been there.”
Quoting Romans 8:28 ( . . . in all things God works for the good of those who love him . . .”), Carlisle shares that the fire was not of God, but God has used the fire for something great.
“God kept our congregation intact,” Carlisle says. “The fire took place on a Thursday and we were meeting in a new location on that Sunday, and we haven’t missed a Sunday since.”
Not only did the church continue to meet, but it continued in its multiple ministries to the community, such as feeding the homeless, school ministries, and other outreaches as if the fire never happened.
“The fire never prevented us from gathering as a church as we are the church, what burned was just a building,” Carlisle says. “We were much more valuable than the edifice itself — God provided for us in the midst of the fire.”
Not only did the church continue in ministry, but several things took place that the arsonist surely never intended.
First, the congregation rallied around their young minister — covering him in prayer and offering him support at every turn.
“They have blessed, raised, molded, and shaped me,” Carlisle says of his congregation. “They’ve been alongside me all the way; I wouldn’t be there except for them. I thank God for every person who considers Mount Pleasant their home church.”
But what has been an evening greater miracle was how the fire has brought the community of faith together, taking down the walls of race, denominationalism, and isolationism in ways that few could have envisioned prior to the fire.
“Many people began to research who we were and what had happened,” Carlisle says. “New relationships began to develop with people from all walks of life, different races, other organizations, other churches — it brought us out of our traditional religious separation to come together as people of God.”
Carlisle says that great relationships and partnerships were formed, with several churches giving generously towards Mount Pleasant’s financial need. Although the gifts were not enough to make up the shortfall, the gifts further cemented relationships.
Yes, something never intended by an arsonist was indeed beginning to happen. Although the Mount Pleasant congregation seemed to have an endless journey in seeing their church building restored, God was investing heavily in the church and the community.
CHAPEL SPRINGS CHURCH
God’s timing doesn’t seem to typically match up with people’s timing for a lot of things, especially in this world of “instant access.” But in the end, the orchestration, the preparation of the “pieces,” the impossibles that become possible — it’s difficult to even fathom the perfect timing of it all.
Scott Leib the longtime pastor of Chapel Springs Church (AG) in Bristow, Virginia, located just seven miles south of Gainesville, says that in 2020, following the breaking of the news concerning George Floyd (several white police officers were later convicted of second- and third-degree murder of Floyd, a black man) he began meeting with a racially and denominationally diverse group of pastors once a month for breakfast.
“We were working to lay the groundwork to see real racial reconciliation in Prince William County (located about 25 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.),” Leib says. “Our heart was, let’s get together and build relationship so we can be prepared and not be just reactionary to whatever is happening in our culture.”
Over the past two years, the monthly prayer breakfasts have resulted in strong relationships between ministers. Those relationships and the trust built between the ministers began having a trickle-down effect on congregations. As Carlisle noted, Christians from varying denominations started seeing each other as “brothers and sisters” in Christ rather than for their race or denomination.
Then came last July.
“I was driving down Hwy. 29 going by Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, when the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart,” Leib says. “I felt like I was supposed to turn into the Mount Pleasant parking lot.”
At first, Leib fought the idea as he drove by the church. He really didn’t know much about the church except it had been sitting there empty for a decade and was the victim of an arsonist. Why would God want Him to pull into the lot?
As the Holy Spirit continued to speak to him, Leib turned his car around and went back to the church.
“I pulled in and took pictures of the sign with the website listed and got the contact information and phone number,” Leib recalls. “Then I looked in through a window and realized it was a construction site.”
Leib reached out to a good friend he had made through the morning breakfast meetings, pastor Stevie Burke. Did he know anything about Mount Pleasant?
Remember that thing about God’s orchestration and timing? Burke, Leib learned, had grown up attending Mount Pleasant — it was his home church!
“Pastor Stevie’s father was a deacon in the church,” Carlisle says. “When I became pastor, pastor Stevie would come over and we began a friendship — he pastors his own church now and he’s always concerned for and supportive of us.”
Following Leib’s request, Burke set up a lunch meeting with Carlisle, Leib, and himself.
“Pastor Carlisle and I really connected,” Leib says. “He invited me to come to meet with their church trustees at the site. I went over there, they took me on a tour, told me the whole story and history of the church. Then we prayed together, and I felt the presence of Jesus come into the room. When I left, I knew God had called us to come alongside to help this church finally get into its building.”
When Leib presented the idea to his church board and then the congregation, it was met with enthusiastic energy.
“Every November we have something we call The Sunday of Generosity Offering,” Leib says. “This is where we dedicate the entire tithe and offering that week to be given away to missional projects. We made Mount Pleasant the main focus of our giving.”
That Sunday, Carlisle and his congregation joined the Chapel Springs congregation for morning worship.
“After we received the offering that morning, we were able to write a check to Mount Pleasant for $200,000,” Leib says. “Our congregation was just so excited to be a part of restoring their church building.”
However, the coming together wasn’t just limited to Chapel Springs and Mount Pleasant. Leib has promoted the need to other churches in the community. Carlisle was invited to speak at another church where they presented him with $50,000 and several other churches have pledged to give offerings toward the needed total of $350,000.
“Whatever others are unable to cover, we have decided to make up the difference,” Leib says. “We’re hoping that pastor Carlisle and the Mount Pleasant congregation will be in their newly restored church for Easter Sunday.”
Leib says that a lot has changed for Chapel Springs, which once was known as a ”white” church, but over the last couple decades has become a very ethnically diverse church — many walls have come down.
“But this is not about Chapel Springs, this is about churches and a community coming together in unity; it’s about what God has done through Mount Pleasant and in so many different churches and lives,” Leib clarifies. “However, this project with Mount Pleasant has been very positive and unifying for us within our congregation.”
Carlisle, despite the decade-plus journey to returning to their church’s historic home, says God has been with him and his congregation every step of the way, providing encouragement, affirmation, and something even more.
“What the devil meant for evil, God worked out for Kingdom good,” Carlisle states. “We are more together now as a community than we ever were . . . we were who God used to get the attention and hearts of those who surround Mount Pleasant, to get beyond racial, church, and denominational boundaries and have genuine concern for those they may not know . . . our churches are now open to each other, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.”