Sitting inside a rustic wood cabin that currently houses New Beginning Church of the Living God in Lithonia, it’s difficult to understand how it didn’t end up underwater. The church’s much newer, 3-year-old sanctuary on Pleasant Hill Road sits only 10 or 20 yards away, and when torrential rains rumbled through the Atlanta area late last month, causing severe and deadly flooding, New Beginnings brick church certainly wasn’t spared.
“There’s some pretty ones,” Pastor Martha Edwards said in a back office of the church’s neighboring cabin, flipping through damage photos on Oct. 1. “I hate to say it, but I like beauty.”
She isn’t wrong. She pauses on a photo of the church, a day or two after a nearby river rose more than 10 feet, rolled up the church’s front yard and poured into the sanctuary, destroying carpet, drywall and costly audio equipment, among other things. The photo shows the church sitting in the middle of what looks like a placid lake underneath a blue sky, almost as if it floated like a houseboat.
It’s a pleasant, momentary way to think of the disaster, particularly considering Edwards’ fears that the damage could cost more than $100,000 to fix. It’s a significant setback for the small church, which boasts a congregation of about 30 parishioners, not including their children.
The church opened in a storefront on Main Street in downtown Lithonia in 1995, said Edwards, who is 69 years old. She said she and her husband, both retired from long careers in the military, felt they were driven by God to open the church and gradually expand it. Before 2005, the couple decided to purchase 12 acres in Lithonia on which to expand the church. They had to contend with a cabin, a swimming pool (both part of a defunct horse farm) and a less-than-welcoming neighboring residential development that was fearful the church’s traffic would harm the area’s semi-rural environment.
They demolished the pool, kept the cabin and the neighbors relented.
“We needed to make a move,” Edwards said. “In that little storefront, we had done as much as we could do. … It’s just like the spirit of Christ in me is driving me to do better.”
They held services in the cabin and then opened the new church next door about three years ago, Edwards said. It was simply the next step in the church’s continual growth.
One issue though: When they bought the land, the Edwardses never bought flood insurance. But they were also told they weren’t building in a floodplain.
“It was supposed to be safe,” said Junius Jackson, a 17-year-old Conyers student in charge of the church’s youth congregation, who has diligently helped Edwards with the clean up efforts after school.
‘When I come out here, I get strength,’ Edwards says
A team of contractors were inside the church Oct. 1 tearing up carpet, cutting away soaked drywall and hauling out equipment. Edwards was preparing to have services in the cabin. Chairs were awkwardly set up on the first floor facing a pulpit next to the cabin’s kitchen counter. Half of the makeshift sanctuary would be in the dining room. The other half would be in the living room behind a staircase to the second floor.
Brenda Green, 67, of Decatur attended services before Edwards was able to build the new church. She was out of town on church business when she was called with news about flooding. She said she began crying on the phone and then heard a reinforcing message from God.
Suffice it to say, she said, returning to the cabin wouldn’t be a significant shock.
“As long as two or three are gathered, the spirit of the Lord will be with us,” Green said.
Edwards said her husband briefly questioned whether there was some religious message to be found in the flooding, but she shrugged the thought off.
“It just happened,” she said. “It was a natural disaster. We didn’t do anything wrong. … It happened to the neighbors. It happened to everybody.”
Sure enough, low-lying homes in the neighborhood behind the church suffered flooding, in some cases, up to their second floors.
Another parishioner, Richard Eckhert, 46, of Lithonia agreed.
“The Bible does tell us it rains on the just and the unjust,” he said. “But it’s good to belong to a larger organization that will help you in a time of despair.”
Edwards still has significant mortgage payments on the church, which is heavily indebted to the national church, she said. But as the contractors continued to erase evidence of the flooding, Edwards was already looking ahead. She was thinking about the church’s continued expansion. She was thinking about a conversation she had with a local builder recently about making another church building. She was thinking how she might go about getting the $2 million the builder told her she would probably need.
Solutions included a bank loan and asking Tyler Perry for the money.
“We’re blessed,” she said. “But we need $2 million.”
She was looking forward to Sunday’s service. In the cabin again.
“If that water would have come in this cabin, I was going to go home, get in bed and you were going to have to come get me out,” Edwards said to Jackson, who laughed. “I just said, ‘Lord, you know everything. I got my Bible. I’m going on.’ When I come out here, I get strength. It’s peaceful in here.”