Faith easily can be tested in the worst of times. Just ask the Rev. Phil and Harriette Bray who lost many of their family heirlooms when fire destroyed the church parsonage last week. The couple had called it home since the Rev. Bray became pastor seven years ago of Fort Creek Baptist Church near Dearing.
McDuffie County Fire/Rescue Services Assistant Chief Stephen Sewell said the fire is believed to have originated in a power strip beside a night stand in the couple's bedroom. Flames spread quickly through the brick structure, located beside the temporary sanctuary.
The fire is blamed for an injury to George Hayes, a church deacon, who happened to be one of the first people to see flames shooting from the side of the home, as he and his family were returning to the church from a restaurant in Wrens. Mr. Hayes, who lives near Dearing, underwent nerve surgery on one of his hands at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon last week. The retired military man turned businessman is said to be recovering at home. Mr. Hayes was hurt after breaking out the driver's side window of the Bray's silver Volkswagen, which likely would have been destroyed had he not been able to push it out of the driveway. He also saved a golf car from burning up.
"We hope and pray that George is going to be just fine," said the Rev. Bray. "It was so nice what he did for us. We deeply appreciate it."
The fire started shortly after the Rev. Bray and Mrs. Bray left from the evening worship service for a trip to the North Georgia city of Rockmart to spend Thanksgiving with family. Firefighters responded to the call shortly after 10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22.
"As devastating as this is for us, it hasn't diminished our faith," said the Rev. Bray, during an interview last Wednesday. "It's stronger."
At first, the Rev. Bray admitted, "We were in disbelief. I guess you could say we were in a state of shock."
The Brays were about 20 miles west of Atlanta when they were reached by Tom Chapel, a church member and a close friend of their son, Charles.
"He wanted to drive up to where we were and drive us back," recalled the Rev. Bray, who has been preaching for 38 years. "We just couldn't sit there and wait, though. We decided to drive back on our own."
The Brays later received a telephone call from Kenneth Huff, one of the church deacons. The Rev. Bray said Mr. Huff told him to drive back slowly, because the house had been destroyed.
The couple stopped to pray before taking the eastbound ramp to get back to McDuffie County and to see what the fire had done to their home.
Their son's small camper trailer, which had been parked beside the church parsonage, also was badly damaged. A portion of one side melted.
In addition, the Brays also lost several family heirlooms. Mrs. Bray lost all of her mother's china, which she had stored in a china hutch.
"The heat just broke it to pieces," said the Rev. Bray.
Much of Mrs. Bray's jewelry was also lost.
"We were able to salvage very little of it," he pointed out, noting that he and church members had spent the better part of the afternoon last Wednesday sifting through the charred debris. The couple also lost cherished photographs of their children and grandchildren.
"We can't replace those things, but we can go on, because we have our children and our grandchildren," said Mrs. Bray, while standing near her daughter and son-in-law from Millen.
Church supplies and equipment was ruined.
"Our home served as the church office," said the Rev. Bray, adding that he lost hundreds of sermons and dozens of study books he had collected.
The couple has experienced other setbacks during their nearly 50-year marriage. Mrs. Bray has suffered two bouts with cancer -- her latest being breast cancer. Mrs. Bray, who recently wrote a book, Embrace Your Cancer, lost several of those in the fire, too.
"We're going to be just fine," said the Rev. Bray. "God is going to see us through these rough times. We have faith that he will provide for us."