A fire that began early Tuesday morning, gutted the First Assembly of God church building in McAlester, Oklahoma. Scarred, blackened brick walls are all that remain to the congregation’s sanctuary and fellowship hall.
Pastor Jerry Burnside, who marks his 50th year of ministry in the Assemblies of God this year, has been serving the First AG congregation since 1984. He said the church is also an election polling place and when he arrived on election morning around 5:15 to let election workers in, he was warned to keep back because there was a fire.
“The security lights were on outside and you really couldn’t notice the fire at first, but then you could see smoke coming from the roof,” Burnside said. “The fire was in the attic and when it broke through roof, the flames really started shooting up; then it broke through the fire wall between the fellowship hall and the sanctuary . . . the sanctuary — it had these beautiful, high, hardwood cathedral ceilings — was gone in only about 30 minutes.”
Burnside says that within minutes after he arrived, McAlester firefighters were on the scene. But there was little firefighters could do but try to knock down the flames that were shooting several stories high into the air, as clouds of black smoke billowed and marked the destruction of the 44-year-old facilities.
Burnside says that, as with every church fire, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was called to the scene to investigate potential causes.
“They had guys with shovels and wheelbarrows, and dogs out sniffing things, trying to determine the cause of the fire,” Burnside says, “but the damage was so extensive, they ruled the cause of the fire as undetectable.”
In addition to losing his library, which included Bibles his father had given to him, Burnside says with a bit of a laugh, “I keep all my suits in my closet at the church. I guess this Sunday people are going to have to see me in just a white shirt and tie.”
The current plan is to hold services in either the church’s gymnasium — if they can get it inspected in time — or to use a tent for this Sunday.
“We were going to have a hamburger and hot dog cookout on Sunday, but now we’re just having a bring-you-own picnic lunch,” Burnside says.
The congregation, which had shrunk to fewer than 100 during COVID, has really stepped up and has been volunteering to help in multiple ways, even finding 100 chairs stored in the gymnasium that most had forgotten about.
“I’ve also been hearing from a lot of people that they’re coming back to support the church,” Burnside says. “And I hope they continue to come.”
The plan is to rebuild, Burnside says, as the church is in an ideal location and has 10 acres of land to build on, but first they have to wait on the engineer’s report to see what their options are. He says that the national office, district office, and area churches have all reached out to him and the church, offering prayers and support.
For those who want to offer some type of assistance, Burnside can be contacted by email. But most importantly, Burnside and the congregation are requesting prayers.
“A family member, who lives on a hill a couple miles away, could see the smoke from the church rising, so she took a picture of the column of smoke,” Burnside shares. “And when you look, you can see this huge rainbow over that column of smoke. It reminds of the Scripture, Isaiah 61:3, where God exchanges beauty for ashes.”