By Trent Brown
Special to The News Reporter
Midday sunlight cascades in through stained-glass windows.
Voices resonate throughout the room singing, “He touched me, touched me, and oh the joy that floods my soul.”
At Fair Bluff United Methodist Church, it’s a special Sunday. A choir of eight men and women sing a passionately narrated four-part harmony cantata, telling the story of Jesus Christ’s life, death and resurrection.
With a medley of songs like, “He Touched Me” and “Then Came the Morning,” the group and its narrator sing in the hope that they will spread the Gospel to everyone who wants to hear and hopefully inspire others to do the same.
It’s a small, white church with velvet-seated wooden pews seating a congregation of forty or so. Beneath the white ceiling and walls, the congregation sits in silence with heads bowed while the music reverberates.
A velvet curtain creates the backdrop for a golden cross in the front of the room – a room that no amount of water could change.
Nestled on its little hill on Main Street, the church stood tall through the flood of Oct. 2016. Its congregation did not miss more than one Sunday. Despite water rising in the yard and covering the grass up to the front steps of the church, it never made it inside.
The town around the church could not say the same.
The storm, Matthew, arrived in the town at a speed of more than 75 mph on Oct. 8. It could have passed as Biblical.
A flood like never before, around four feet of standing water, grabbed Fair Bluff by its shirt collar and shook it violently. Homes and businesses were submerged in murky water, the storm unrelenting in its stranglehold for days.
Soon after, drones were flying in to record video footage of the scenery. National news teams found their way to the small town by the boatload. Charity workers scrambled in to help the rebuilding effort, or lack thereof. Local churches worked together with the local funeral home, using its building as a temporary shelter and storage for supplies.
It was going to take a lot of work. Over 100 homes were damaged significantly, stranding hundreds of people. There was to be no electricity for two weeks, and no running water in any homes for even longer. Recent estimates place the net loss of Fair Bluff residents leaving at almost 400 people.
Before the flood, however, the town of Fair Bluff was already in steep decline. Tobacco farming reduced to a memory of what it once was, textile factories long gone, and railroads in process of repair. There is only one grocery store, three churches and a poverty problem that envelops one in three persons.
A town in disrepair, meeting its demise.
But through the destruction and repair of the rain and wind. Through the reports that the state had yet to spend a penny of the more than $200 million in allocated relief money. Through the despair of homes being abandoned and packed cars taking families to faraway places. Through the businesses never opening back up.
There were two constants.
The Lumber River still flowed and Fair Bluff United Methodist still congregated each Sunday.
The Rev. Neill Smith, the pastor at Fair Bluff United Methodist, is confined to a wheelchair while the choir fills his church with their melodies, due to a recent foot surgery. It doesn’t take away from the liveliness and work ethic that has embodied his relationships with his congregation.
He’s a serious but playful man. Smith mixes in jokes with his serious words of faith; praying often throughout his services and throwing in anecdotal phrases like, “We’re like the energizer bunny. We take a lickin’, but we keep on tickin’,” before closing and dismissing the congregation.
Not only does he give the sermon messages every Sunday morning, but he also is often the leader of worship music in the mornings. Switching back and forth some Sundays between hymns and newer music, Smith often plays guitar and sings with a booming, folksy twang, creating faithful sounds that erupt through the air.
As for his livelihood during the flood, Smith’s home was on the safe side of town, on the road that runs in the opposite direction of the river and rises in altitude ever so slightly.
This was more than enough to curtail the rising water from coming too close to his home. He won’t even entertain the idea that he faced hardship like that of those around him, changing the subject quickly.
“Oh no,” he says, “My house was fine. I was fine.”
Instead, when the storm seriously affected four United Methodist families, Rev. Smith made his experience of Hurricane Matthew one of working for his people.
Smith travelled around the town, taking photos of friends’ homes so that he could keep them updated on the status of the flooding around their property. As the following day was a Sunday, he had to cancel church services for that week and the next, but Rev. Smith got the church back running Oct 22.
In fact, not only did he get the church back into shape for his own congregation as soon as possible, but Smith also opened the doors up to another local church. Every Sunday, they could use the building for their own services at 12:30 once United Methodist was done.
“If the Lord had not been on our side, we wouldn’t have that church,” said Elder Billy Johnson as he pointed at his chapel.
Johnson and his family were spending the night in Marion, South Carolina, with his brother in-law on Oct. 8, 2016, while water was consuming his church.
It took almost seven hours of driving to get back to Fair Bluff the next day, with almost every road completely flooded out or blocked by fallen trees. When they finally arrived, they found their church, Fair Bluff Church of God True Holiness, under four feet of water.
Normally the Church of God True Holiness was a small, one room white cement building. Seating around 40 members in an open grassy plot of land on the corner of Academy and Bullock streets, it saw hustle, bustle and praise every Sunday.
However, on the Sunday of Oct. 9, 2016, the pews were floating.
When Rev. Smith heard about this, he immediately offered his church as a place for Johnson’s congregation to meet and have fellowship on Sundays until repairs could be made.
“[Rev. Smith] has been a great man of God,” said Johnson. “He opened doors for us.”
From mid-Oct. 2016 through March 2017, True Holiness met every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. inside the United Methodist chapel, ready to worship and praise as usual.
Johnson recently brought up in conversation with Rev. Smith that without his offering of the church space, the Church of God True Holiness might never have had another church service again. In already broken times, his congregation may have left with the drying of the water.
Instead, the small, white building on the corner of Academy and Bullock Street is back and running on this windy Sunday in early April, over a year and a half later.
It is completely remodeled with new carpet, seating, walls and a roof. In the front of the white room, you can find Johnson’s pulpit between two grand pianos. Behind the pulpit, facing the congregation is a quote in gold letters on the wall that reads, “A church where everybody is somebody and the love is tangible.”
Johnson smiles widely as he looks at his church.
“The Lord blessed us real well,” he said. “I thank God for it. Nobody did it but the Lord.”
“It was a scary time,” says Mariam Williams, Fair Bluff native and long-time member of United Methodist.
When the storm came, Williams evacuated as soon as possible, leaving behind all of her possessions and her two homes that sit side-by-side near the local funeral home. Worried and afraid by the size of the hurricane and the damage that it had done on its way to Fair Bluff, she knew that she’d be stuck there if she stayed.
While she received updates from Rev. Smith that the water kept rising at an extremely fast rate, pouring inches on within just minutes, Williams remembers thinking, “What will be there when I come back?”
The dam that holds back her tears breaks when the memory comes up.
However, she was one of the luckier few. A slight incline up to her house kept the water within inches of her downstairs floor.
The space under her house was submerged, causing severe damages to the AC unit and electrical wiring, along with other small issues that would need repairs. Later in the year, charity workers from the North Carolina Baptist Association arrived and helped to make those repairs.
But Williams couldn’t care less about those problems, she is just thankful for what didn’t happen.
“This is material stuff,” said Williams. “It can be replaced. I know that the Lord will carry me through it. I’m just thankful that I didn’t lose any more than I did.”
On this Sunday, she faithfully listens to the choir and goes back to the kitchen to clean a bit after the service. Down the street, her home does not resemble disaster.
“The Lord is so good to me,” she says, drying her eyes.
On Oct. 7, the two-story home of Jim and Cindy Turner was on the bank of the Lumber River. The next day, the bottom floor of the home was four inches deep in it.
“It was just a mess,” says Jim Turner.
The couple left on a boat on Oct. 8 and 10 days later, when the water dried and the river receded back down the bank, the Turners came back to their home. From then on, it became a total rebuild situation, as trying to repair what was left would have been costlier.
From the ground up, they brought in a contractor and replaced the entire bottom floor. The beams were removed and new ones brought in, sheetrock was cut out and insulation was replaced. In the meantime, the Turners lived in a trailer on the property with other close family members; including their granddaughter, whose apartment had been flooded by four feet of water up to the bottom of the windows.
“Overwhelmed” is the only way Cindy Turner can describe the experience.
In July of 2017, they finally were able to move back into their rebuilt home, where they have now lived for 35 years. However, things were still not the same. Jim Turner’s 16-foot-long dock out on the river was long gone.
“It’s somewhere in Georgetown, South Carolina, by now,” he jokes.
But as her husband chokes up a bit when recounting the disaster, Cindy Turner says, “We like to laugh now, but we’ve had a lot of crying.”
Through the hardship and pain, the Turners stay certain on their motivation. Their faith. They stayed true to United Methodist services through it all, while the church stayed true to them.
“If it hadn’t been for God,” says Cindy, “I don’t know if we would have made it.”
As the narrator passionately tells the congregation to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for every sinner’s heart, many heads show their agreement with eyes closed and mouths shut. Their own sacrifices of the past year are an afterthought on Sunday mornings.
With the service moving closer to a time of communion, Rev. Smith will pray. He will pray over the breaking of bread and he will pray over the pouring of wine, that each heart and mind will understand the meaning of it. The room is like a safe haven from the outside world.
It’s been 555 days of heartbreak and hard work, but Rev. Neill Smith, Elder Billy Johnson, Mariam Williams, Jim and Cindy Turner, and the rest of the town of Fair Bluff, NC will not let their stories be written for them.
Fair Bluff businesses will close and open again, families will move in and out of the town like the wind and harsh rains will return. Through it all, United Methodist will stand for Fair Bluff.
A menacing storm cloud moves in to the town over the church. It will bring tornados to cities merely hours away. For Fair Bluff, it will only bring a scare, an inch or so of rain, and high winds.
In the chapel, the choir sings on, “Death had lost and life had won, for morning had come.”
Trent Brown is a rising senior journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is fromCerro Gordo.