In an old pawn shop by the highway in Ridgeland, a church lives on.
On Oct. 6, about 60 members of Gospel Lighthouse Church descended on the old shop in a nondescript strip mall on East Main Street. The crowd was lighter than usual, Eddie Chavers said, likely because his brother -- founder Jackie -- was out of town, down in Louisiana for a conference.
The Sunday service lasted a little over two hours. The pastor talked about trials of faith, a familiar concept to many in the congregation at Gospel Lighthouse Church.
Many members of the church were once wayward souls who have used religion to get on the right track. Others are longtime churchgoers, eager to help others struggling through their trials with faith. Jackie and Eddie both fit into the former category, having nearly died from drug and alcohol addictions before finding God.
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None of that could prepare them for what happened Aug. 27. That's when Gospel Lighthouse's congregation faced the biggest crisis of faith in their church's 10-year history: watching as their beloved church burned down.
THE FIREJackie Chavers founded Gospel Lighthouse Church of Ridgeland in 2003, seven years after he had nearly died from his addictions and six after he became determined to right his life through God.
The church first met in the living room of his home along Carters Mill Road in Ridgeland, but it grew quickly. Once it got too large for the living room, it moved under the old oak tree in his yard.
Soon, Chavers was purchasing a lot and trailer from his neighbor to open up the first church building. With crowds growing larger, he added another double-wide trailer to expand the church building a few years later.
It's unclear what caused the building to catch fire at about 1:30 a.m. Aug. 27. Jackie and Eddie were asleep early that morning; a missionary, returning home after a late night out, smelled smoke and eventually spotted flames in the church.
He quickly woke Eddie, who immediately dialed 911, but there was little that could be done. By the time firefighters arrived at the house, the church was engulfed in flames.
"We couldn't save anything," Eddie said.
The church was still burning when Jackie's wife, Donna, began calling the congregation to let them know what was happening. Church member Sharon Exley drove 45 minutes from Guyton, Ga., to Ridgeland after receiving the call.
"I drove up and stayed through the morning," she said. "It was still burning when I got there. I was almost numb to it. I was more concerned for my church family than the building."
NEW BEGINNINGSBefore firefighters had left the property, Gospel Lighthouse was already preparing for life without the church. Charles Beam, a Ridgeland resident and occassional attendee at the church (with his mother, Nettie, who frequently attends services) offered up a tent from his petting zoo for the church to use for services, Jackie Chavers said. Two Ridgeland churches donated chairs to fill the tent, he added.
Despite the church building burning down less than 48 hours before, Gospel Lighthouse's regular Wednesday service on Aug. 28 went on as scheduled.
Gospel Lighthouse spent three weeks under the tent before moving to the old pawn shop on East Main Street. Chavers said he was contacted by Keith Horton, a friend from Ridgeland he'd known for more than 40 years. Horton offered Chavers the pawn shop at a reduced rate, and Chavers quickly accepted.
Chavers and the congregation spent a week fixing up the old shop up -- painting the walls white, building a small platform for the band and pastor, and setting up a sound system for use during services. Even with the work put in, signs of the store's old life were present; wall racks still adorned one side of the room, and unused security cameras dotted the ceiling tiles.
As the church prepared to move, support from the community never stopped. Ridgeland Baptist Church had a spaghetti dinner fundraiser a few weeks after the fire, with all proceeds going to Gospel Lighthouse, church member Doug Lane said. At the Gopher Hill Festival in early October, a festival booth held a raffle, with proceeds going to the church.
Gospel Lighthouse had a booth at the festival too, Lane said. The booth was plain, except for a banner reading "Thank you, Ridgeland."
Chavers said the old pawn shop likely will be the church's home for at least a year while a new building is constructed. While his goal is to build on the same spot the old church sat, he hopes to expand the building and create more parking.
"Hopefully we can get a few more acres and expand, but we're looking at a few locations," he said. "We'll go where the Lord wants us to go. The building wasn't the church, the people are."
Wherever Gospel Lighthouse ends up, it will have plenty of eager churchgoers following.
Exley said she joined the church in 2008 to help her sister through a crisis and never left.
"This is a place that loves the unloved," she said. "God hasn't stopped moving since this fire. Every service we have gets sweeter."
Lane, a Savannah resident, joined two years ago. Longtime missionaries to Haiti, he and his wife immediately fell for the church after a visit.
"We were between churches, but once we walked in and felt the love from the people we knew we wanted to come to this church," he said. "They make you feel welcome here."
Lane, who recently turned 71, said the fire gave the church a new start.
"I keep telling people I turned 8, because seven and one equal eight, and because on the eighth day, God began creating again," he said. "We're just getting started. This is our new beginning."
Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.