Thirteen volunteers from the St. Louis vicinity help rebuild a South Pekin church.
As a construction worker, Johnny Gipson at least looked the part.
Work boots. Work pants held up by suspenders with a star-spangled patriotic motif. T-shirt. Utility belt with tools in it.
But when it came to actual construction worker skills, Gipson made a better saver of souls than a hanger of vinyl siding.
"I’m a lot better tearing down than building up," said Gipson, the pastor of Fairmount General Baptist Church in St. Peters, Mo. "But I guess I can cut a piece of siding pretty straight if someone show’s me how to do it."
Gipson and 13 other men from four different Baptist churches in suburban St. Louis rolled into South Pekin on Friday morning to lend a hand, a nail gun, a ladder — whatever it took — to a brethren church that had a deep need for all of it.
On the morning of July 23, the under-construction South Pekin Community Fellowship General Baptist Church collapsed without warning. Four construction workers cutting lumber on the ground beneath 41 485-pound trusses narrowly escaped without injury. Pastor Dowice Ashley ran immediately toward the awful sound and dropped to his knees in thanks to God when he saw the four workers standing safely away from the collapsed church. They were shaken up — a lot — but breathing.
Everyone was safe, but Ashley’s dream church was suddenly a splintered pile of sprung, twisted, unusable lumber.
"(Ashley) e-mailed me that day and he sounded pretty discouraged," Gipson said. Their churches are part of an affiliation of 22 General Baptist churches in Illinois and Missouri. "I came up a couple of days later and assured him that he was not in this by himself. We would get the word out and he would have help."
The community responded. Churches unconnected to the South Pekin church took up collections and handed the money over to Ashley in buckets. Private donations arrived by mail and in person. The infusion of cash allowed cleanup and construction to continue non-stop in the days following the accident by the professional contractor hired for the job. By the end of this week an astonishing amount of work was complete; a church had grown from rubble. The walls were up, the roof was on and work was continuing in the interior. But the contractor’s work was done.
That’s where the volunteers come in.
"These people should be working at their jobs today," Ashley said. "Instead, they are here helping a community three hours from their homes. God has a plan."
Said Pastor Floyd Holland of Hazelwood, Mo.: "It’s something you do to serve others because when you serve others, you serve the Lord. Simple."
The crew of men from Gipson’s church and from the General Baptist Church in Florissant and Holland’s Southside General Baptist Church in Lemay will stay until late Saturday. Their meals were provided at a discount by JJ’s Cafe across the street from the church. Rooms were provided for free at the Concorde Inn and Suites in Pekin, sparing the men from tossing sleeping bags on the pews in the old church that will be torn down when the new one is ready for a congregation to sing in. Ashley prays by Easter.
Jimmy Ferrell should have been building houses in St. Charles, Mo., on Friday. But the part-owner of the family business, Ferrell Brothers Construction, was happily in South Pekin, one of three professionals who got to boss the other lesser-skilled workers around. Like Pastor Holland’s, his reason for helping was simple, too.
"Making points for my latter days," he said, smiling.
Gipson, who needed similar help when his church was destroyed in the Mississippi River floods in the summer of 1993, praised Ashley’s efforts to build a large new church for his small congregation. A sign on the back of the old sanctuary states record Sunday attendance, so far, was 55 souls.
"He wants to build a congregation of 55, a church that holds hundreds," Gipson said. "Good gravy. That’s a vision. That’s a dream."
Scott Hilyard can be reached at (309) 686-3244 or email@example.com.