Early morning fire destroys Hensley church building

By Amy Forbus Editor HENSLEY, Ark.—Around 4 a.m. on July 20, Lindella Withers of Hensley awoke to the sound of a neighbor knocking on her door. Like most news delivered in the pre-dawn hours, his message wasn’t a good one: The building belonging to New Haven United Methodist Church was on fire. “I’ve been there 52 years, all my life. This is my childhood church,” she said. “When we got there, the back fellowship hall was already engulfed in flames.” It didn’t take long for Withers and her mother, Dorothy Smith, to reach the church’s property, less than half a mile from their homes in Hensley, a small community on the southern edge of Pulaski County. But by the time they arrived, they knew there wasn’t much that could be saved. “We got up, we went up there, and it’s—it’s gone,” said Smith, who serves as the church’s treasurer, her voice lowering to a whisper as she named the reality of the building’s destruction. “Ever since I was 15 years old, I’ve been right there in that church.” As of press time, officials hadn’t yet ruled on where or how the blaze started. But regardless of the cause, the African-American congregation with an average worship attendance between 20 and 25 persons will move forward. The members gathered at Hensley City Park at 5 p.m. the afternoon of the fire, and agreed to hold weekly worship there for the short term. The Rev. Norma Gillerson, the church’s pastor, says that they have begun talks with the owner of a nearby vacant church building about making that facility their longer-term temporary home. Gillerson said that the congregation has heard from many churches and individuals since the fire. “The whole Conference has been so helpful and supportive and prayerful, and I just don’t know how to say thank you enough,” she said. “It just goes to show that the United Methodist Church is there for us. I don’t know how to explain it—they take care of even the least of these.” She added that a number of churches have made offers of lecterns, chairs and other furnishings whenever New Haven UMC is ready to receive them. The plan is for the congregation Gillerson describes as “a very small church with a big heart” to rebuild on the same site. “We are the largest church in the community, so we are a community church,” she said. “We are a voting precinct also. And whenever there’s a huge funeral or a large wedding, a community meeting—we are just open to the community.” It’s obvious that the people of New Haven UMC are accustomed to being good neighbors, and they plan to continue that pattern, even as they work through the challenge of having lost their physical home.