Historic St. Matthews African Methodist Church Pastor John Henderson is used to receiving telephone calls from church members about family emergencies. However, the call he received Oct. 6 was a first for the Hinesville resident.
“As I was preparing to attend a birthday celebration, I received a telephone call from Bishop H.L. McRoy, a pastor friend of mine who lives in Hazelhurst, Ga. He told me someone had called him and said my church was on fire,” Henderson said. “When I received the telephone call, I contacted some of the officers of the church. I then contacted my friend and mentor, Dr. Earnest Williams, and we immediately got on the road to Hazelhurst. Needless to say, I was in total shock.”
St. Matthews has been a pillar of the Hazlehurst community since slavery ended.
“When we arrived at the church, the sanctuary was completely destroyed. There were people from the fire department, police department, GBI, church members and the community,” Henderson said.
“The church did not accidently catch on fire; it was set on fire by a homeless man. He has mental problems and needs help. I have no hard feelings towards him,” the pastor added. “He broke into the food pantry, which is a separate building from the church, to get something to eat.”
According to officials, Kurtz apparently noticed there were security cameras while he was in the food pantry. He allegedly set the sanctuary on fire in an effort to cover up the burglary.
“Although this is a very tragic event, God works in mysterious ways,” Henderson said. “We will continue to have church in the fellowship hall, which is also a separate building. St. Matthews has church on the second and fourth Sundays, with Bible study on Friday morning at 10 a.m.,” Henderson said.
While the church building may have been destroyed and the members are feeling the emotional pain of the loss, the fire did not destroy the spirit and determination to rebuild. Henderson described the membership as older, retired, loving and caring.
“We will rebuild, and the members are doing well,” Henderson said. “They trust God and I know that God is in the plan. He knows what is best for us. This will just draw us even closer together as a church family and community. The community support and love have been heartfelt.”
Henderson served as pastor of St. Matthews for one year and has been pastoring for nine years. He has been in the ministry for 12 years and previously served as pastor of New Hope AME in Ludowici and interim pastor of St. Thomas AME in Walthourville and Mt. Zion AME in Gardi.
He is retired military and lives in Hinesville with his wife, Oraetta, who is a gifted musician and singer.