Vilonia congregation dedicates new building

Debt-free reconstruction completed 10 months after tornado

By Amy Forbus
Editor

Young worshipper Braydon Poland dances as the congregation sings during Vilonia UMC’s building dedication service. AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Young worshipper Braydon Poland dances as the congregation sings during Vilonia UMC’s building dedication service.
AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

VILONIA, Ark.—Seven minutes before the 10 a.m. worship service on March 1, members of Vilonia United Methodist Church began setting up extra rows of chairs for the friends old and new packing the bright and spacious sanctuary. A brass ensemble began to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” and the image on the projection screens bore the message, “Welcome Home.”

Just 10 months after a deadly tornado ripped through central Arkansas, taking out homes, businesses, lives and doing severe damage to the Vilonia congregation’s facility, the church gathered to dedicate its new home to the glory of God.

“This being a bigger building, we have to sing a lot louder,” said music leader Dave Yarbrough, encouraging worshippers to raise their voices on both the classic hymns and contemporary praise songs.

Positioned to share

In a word of greeting to the church before leading them in prayer, Bishop Gary Mueller reminded them that God does not waste a crisis.

“Look where you are after only 10 months,” he said. “You’re not just back where you were, you’re positioned to proclaim the gospel, to welcome people, to have them know Jesus Christ and be transformed and to share in the good news of Jesus Christ with a world that so needs it.”

Fred Fowlkes works to remove the cornerstone of Vilonia UMC’s old building before its demolition earlier this year. His father-in-law led construction of that building, and Fowlkes and his wife, Beverly, were the first couple to hold their wedding there. PHOTO BY TODD BURRIS

Fred Fowlkes works to remove the cornerstone of Vilonia UMC’s old building before its demolition earlier this year. His father-in-law led construction of that building, and Fowlkes and his wife, Beverly, were the first couple to hold their wedding there.
PHOTO BY TODD BURRIS

The bishop also congratulated them for having a dedication, not just a consecration, of the new building.

“There is the consecration of a building, which is to set it aside for holy work, and there is the dedication of a building, which is what you do when there is no debt at all,” he said. “That’s what’s happening today: You not only are consecrating this building as a place of worship, but more importantly as a mission station. You are doing it with no debt, which means that your financial resources can be used to reach people, to bring healing and to bring hope.”

The church’s pastor, the Rev. Nathan Kilbourne, in his sermon emphasized that the congregation’s new space is sacred because God chooses to inhabit it and make God’s presence known. “Place matters,” he said, quoting his grandmother, who insists on driving nearly an hour each way to attend her home church.

But while place does matter, God doesn’t want to be contained by buildings, Kilbourne said. Of all the great spaces that have been built, God chooses one place to be confined: in human flesh.

“Today we have an opportunity to say to God as we dedicate this space, ‘Fill us as a church. Fill us as the people of God,’” he said. “‘Use us, mold us, make us, that we might be a sacred space in our community—not that this space would just be the sacred space, but that we would become that sacred space.’”

Thankful

Maddie Jenkins served as acolyte on Dedication Sunday. AUM PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

Maddie Jenkins served as acolyte on Dedication Sunday.
AUM PHOTOS BY AMY FORBUS

Before the service, Fred Fowlkes, the congregation’s lay leader and one of the members spearheading the rebuilding process, expressed thankfulness for all the labor and gifts given to the congregation. He shared stories of those who came from near and far to help, including groups from Tennessee churches pastored by Kilbourne’s father and uncle. He recalled one large church of another denomination that sent scores of people, and as they left after a full day of work, presented a check for $10,000.

“I’m overwhelmed, really,” he said. “I was thinking about it this morning. It’s been 10 months, and has seemed like a lot longer than that, in a lot of ways, with a lot of things that happened in that time. But we’ve been just terribly blessed.”

Kilbourne expressed the congregation’s special thanks to those within the United Methodist connection who helped their sister church get back on its feet.

Bryn Westby plays a violin solo during Holy Communion at Vilonia UMC’s March 1 Dedication Sunday celebration. AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Bryn Westby plays a violin solo during Holy Communion at Vilonia UMC’s March 1 Dedication Sunday celebration.
AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

“Our members are so thankful to all who came, especially our UMCOR groups,” he said. Volunteers working with the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), both from within Arkansas and beyond, provided a sustained positive influence amid the disaster, starting within hours of when the tornado hit.

Fowlkes credited the Vilonia congregation’s cooperative spirit with making the decision of how to rebuild go smoothly.

“Once we looked at where we were… everybody got behind it,” he said. “Not one person in the church was opposed to it. Everybody’s been agreeable and supportive.”

Beautiful things

During the offering, a slide show set to the song “Beautiful Things” by Gungor captured the process from destruction to rebuilding and gave worshippers a sense of how much had happened since the tornado struck.

And in the category of “good problems to have,” the single-serving cups ran short during the celebration of Holy Communion. Picking up the common chalice from the table, Kilbourne continued serving by intinction, with recipients dipping pieces of bread into the cup.

The rear wall of the sanctuary holds a painting depicting the church’s old building, given by Vilonia artist Debbie Wright. A walk through the halls revealed that the church staff had begun to settle into its offices, and that the Methodist Family Health Counseling Clinic was up and running once more.

Bishop Gary Mueller, left, leads a prayer for the Rev. Nathan Kilbourne at the close of Vilonia UMC’s March 1 worship service.  AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Bishop Gary Mueller, left, leads a prayer for the Rev. Nathan Kilbourne at the close of Vilonia UMC’s March 1 worship service.
AUM PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Surrounded by beauty and newness, the congregation received a challenge from its pastor at the close of his sermon.

“Will we be known as the church who, having experienced the resurrecting power of God, sat around, and did nothing with it?” Kilbourne asked. “Or will we be known as the church who, having experienced the resurrecting power of God, was so renewed by God’s grace that they took that resurrecting power into a broken and hurting community, and said ‘We want to share our sacred space with you?’

“Space matters, and God dwells among us. Will we let God dwell within us?”