THE SMELL is the first thing you notice, an acrid smoky smell that sits around Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Lake Village. There is little exterior damage visible from the road, since the fire started on the far side of the church. But a closer look shows that the large vertical front windows are gone, blown out by the fire, and glass litters the sidewalk. Smoke stains curlicue around the eaves of the building. And the closer you get, the stronger the smell grows.
There is no mistake once you walk inside. Where the outside is bright and sunlit, the inside is dark, black. While much of the church may be reparable, since the fire was contained to one end, the altar is scorched and the ceiling above it alligatored. Books lay open to fire-eaten pages, other books curled and swollen from the firefighters’ water. The organ keys are melted into grotesque shapes, and the piano is charred. Light pours in from above the chancel, where the fire began and ate its way inward before the firefighters could put it out.
The fire that destroyed much of Emmanuel Church’s altar and chancel areas is believed to have been sparked by a lightning strike. People reported hearing a loud crack of thunder around 12:45 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 11, and an old tree just across the road shows evidence of a strike.
No one was in the building at the time. A passerby saw the smoke and called the fire department, and a parishioner managed to save the chalice and patten.
THE DAY AFTER THE FIRE, eight parishioners gathered with Bishop Benfield in a circle of folding chairs beneath a shade tree on the property. There was, of course, talk of loss and grief and insurance. But Emmanuel Church is a healthy and growing congregation, highlighted in a video at this year’s diocesan convention, and the conversation under the shade tree turned quickly to the future.
“Well, do y’all want to have a service this Sunday?” asked one parishioner. “Meet here and then afterward put on our masks and start sifting through?” Everyone agreed, and it was decided that, weather permitting, the service would be held on the shore of Lake Chicot, just across the road from the church. Since both the piano and organ were lost in the fire, one parishioner agreed to find some songs everyone could sing a cappella. Several other Episcopal churches have already supplied the congregation with prayer books, altar linens, and furnishings.
And beyond this Sunday, the parishioners at Emmanuel see a bright future, saying that the fire might even be an opportunity for the congregation to grow. And Bishop Benfield agreed. “If people see you being the Church even without a church building,” he said, “you’re going to attract new people.”