Risen from the ashes: Living Waters UMC celebrates new building

By Omar Rikabi
Special Contributor

CENTERTON, Ark.—Smoke was once again rising from Living Waters United Methodist Church, but instead of arson it was a barbecue, and instead of sorrow there was celebration. On Sept. 21, nearly two years after the Centerton church’s 89-year-old building was destroyed by fire, friends and family gathered to eat, drink and celebrate the opening of their new home.

Howard Womak came to visit and was admiring the new sanctuary, with its new chairs, an altar rail donated by a church in Oklahoma, and a large cross made of salvaged wood from the old, burned out sanctuary. It was Womak’s great-grandfather who had donated the land for the original church back in the late 1800s, and though a life-long Baptist, he grew up attending Bible school at the old church building.

Also examining the new worship space was Lance Schaffer, who built the sanctuary’s salvaged cross. Lance’s uncle, Troy Stidham, is a contractor from Missouri and built the new church at cost. Lance smiles as he talks about the past and the future of Living Waters, and his family’s place in it: He and his wife, Brittany, were the last couple to be married in the old sanctuary, eight months before it burned down. And in a couple of weeks their infant son, Brooks, will be the first person baptized in the new sanctuary.

Accessibility and more

Outside, amid the big grill, live music and bounce-houses for the kids, Shirley Herbaugh repeats over and over, “This is wonderful!” Her husband Gerald is a life-long member of the church. Born with polio, as a young boy he needed to be carried up and down the stairs by groups of friends. Now, he has a building he can enter into on his own in his wheelchair.

A quick walk through the building reveals that there is more than handicap accessibility for the members of the church to be excited about. Just two miles from Bentonville, Living Waters is positioned for the growth that is already moving toward Centerton. A new high school will go in down the road, and with it new neighborhoods and new families.

In another week or two, the church’s food pantry, shut down since the fire, will be back up and running in its new designated space. And in the room next door, a medical examination room waits for a planned medical clinic. Two retired doctors in the community, moved by the new construction, have already offered their services, free of charge.

And somewhere, in the midst of all the people walking around, sharing hugs, and reveling in their new digs, is the Rev. Blake Lasater. He gives tours and answers questions, and the look on his face is one of extreme relief.

“We just got the certificate of occupancy yesterday at 4:10 in the afternoon,” he says. “I wasn’t sure this was ever going to happen. I’m starting to feel normal again for the first time in two years. This is a dream come true.”

A tough journey

Now a retired Navy reservist, Lasater came to pastor here in 2005, and in 2007 was shipped to serve in Iraq. In 2008, Living Waters merged with the 145-year-old Centerton UMC. On September 15, 2011, he was in Little Rock when he got a call that the church was on fire. The cause was ruled as arson, but no arrests were ever made. The sanctuary was gutted, and smoke and water damage filled the rest of the building. But the insurance company wanted to restore the old building, and would only pay half of the claim money if the church decided to tear down and build anew.

Lasater tells of how they debated what to do, and how the decision was settled by the church’s oldest living member, Anna Skaggs. In her 90s at the time of the fire, Skaggs had been baptized in the old sanctuary as a child. But as Lasater says, she declared, “I wish you would tear this [old building] down and build a place I can walk into!” And that settled it.

“Once the oldest member tells you that,” says Lasater, “you know you won’t have a battle with the congregation.”

Sadly, Skaggs died just a few weeks after the church began construction on the new building. And that was not the only tragedy. Less than three months after the building burned down, Lasater’s wife, Jan, died of cancer. As their five-year-old daughter Gracie runs through the new building and past her daddy, he watches her go by, and after a long pause he says, “There were days these last two years where I would have rather been back in Iraq.”

But his smile quickly returns. There are new visitors walking around, and Lasater wants to talk about the “new stability.” He tells of how during construction, new people constantly showed up asking when they would re-open.

“The old building was dilapidated and not accessible,” he says. “Now we have tons of interest. It’s amazing how a building sets a tone.”

The congregation, which averages between 95 and 105 in worship attendance, had been meeting at Centerton Gamble Elementary. Every week they would set up the chairs, sound system, instruments and altar for worship.

“I’m never unloading ‘church in a box’ again,” he laughs.

The following day, the district superintendent, the Rev. Bud Reeves, helped consecrate Living Waters’ new home. And Lasater preached the first sermon in the new sanctuary.

The message? “The cost of discipleship.”

The Rev. Rikabi serves as director of the Wesley Foundation campus ministry at the University of Arkansas.