“Clothing, computers, furniture, toys- we had a huge toy room- they’re gone.”
Jim Clark was in a meeting at Highland Church of Christ Saturday evening when his cellphone began ringing. He answered to a volunteer at the Christian Service Center saying the building was on fire.
Clark, executive director for the Christian Service Center for the past 13 years, said he rushed over to 901 Mesquite St. to watch his home away from home go up in flames. He stood as volunteers and members of the community gathered around him to observe the destruction.
“I was just in shock,” he said. “And then I saw the firefighters fighting. We were so grieved, our home was going up in flames.”
The fire ravaged the center, eating up almost all of the clothing, kitchen supplies, computers, towels, toys, food, books and Bibles the organization distributes to the needy in the community. Abilene Fire Department Chief Larry Bell said the fire started between 3:20 and 4 p.m. Saturday, and firefighters were unable to enter the building to control the blaze until later that night. The cause is yet to be determined, but Clark says he and others speculate it was a wiring issue.
Founded in 1965, the Christian Service Center was inspired by a preacher’s message about serving the heart of the poor. Almost a year after Sixteenth and Vine Street Church of Christ elders pooled efforts to expand the mission, Peg Smith decided to take over for Jessie Eubanks as the director.
Smith, an Abilene businesswoman, left her job and started a ministry called Operation Blue Jeans in the clothing closet of a downtown Abilene hotel in hopes of expanding the center’s services.
The center moved to 901 Mesquite St. in 1968. In that same year, Abilene Christian College was looking to remove the three World War II barracks previously used as housing for the 50,000 soldiers in training at Camp Barkeley and then as dorms for students on its campus. ACC built new dorms in their place and the three barracks were donated to Christian Services to be moved to Mesquite Street where they remained for almost 50 years.
That is until Saturday evening, when the fire burned everything except the women’s clothing building.
Before then, about 150 low-income people would enter the center each week, looking for help with finding food, volunteering as a way to transition into society after incarceration, getting clothing, receiving school supplies, picking up heaters and fans, getting bibles, finding financial assistance and getting toys for their children. Serving more than 7,000 a year, Christian Service aims to provide as many services as possible to those in need in and around the Abilene area.
Grand Works halfway house is one of the agencies Christian Service Center provides services to. A transitional home for former convicts, addicts and homeless individuals, Grand Works has relied on the center for food, clothing and rehabilitation services for many years.
Frenchie Matherne, director of Grand Works House, sends residents that arrive straight from prison to the center for necessities.
“They help out tremendously. Whenever I get new ones in, such as tonight, I’ll get one in about 10:30 or 11 o’clock on a bus. He’ll come in with nothing to his name,” Matherne said. “And they’ll fix him up with a few things for a day or two- with some clothes and shoes and stuff. They’ll set up an appointment for him and then he’ll get back over there, and he’s able to get the rest of the necessities. So then he’ll be able to go out and get a job and look presentable.”
Matherne said he takes his tenants to Christian Services almost immediately after they fill out paperwork to get needed clothes, food, boots and shoes to get them hunting for jobs as soon as possible.
As Christian Services takes the time to rebuild itself, Matherne has turned to other organizations like Love and Care ministries for help. Everything else the new tenants need he’s tried to provide himself.
“The ones that I’ve taken in the last week and a half, (8 people) the different ones here in the house have been helping them with clothing,” he said. “Very seldom do we get donations here, so right now it’s hard but we’ll make due.”
Matherne said the loss of the Christian Services Center will put a strain on the entire community, but he believes with the love of Christ and patience, everything will work out.
In a stroke of luck amidst tragedy, Clark said Christian Services planned to move to a new, larger facility at 3185 N. 10th St. in November after renovations were complete. The facility, former property of Woodlawn Church of Christ, came into the organization’s hands about three years ago while Clark said he and the board were praying to find a location with more than the 10,000 square feet they were struggling to fit in at the 901 Mesquite St. facility.
“We’re really grateful to the elders of Woodlawn for giving us that property,” Clark said.
In the meantime, Christian Services will be temporarily relocated to 949 Mesquite St., where Meals on Wheels Inc. used to operate but has since used as a storage facility, according to a media release circulated by the center Wednesday morning.
Clark said he talked to Betty Bradley, the executive director for Meals on Wheels, and when she mentioned the crisis to the organization’s board its members met in the days following the fire and offered the space to Christian Services, refusing to let the organization pay for anything apart from utilities.
“She and her staff spent about two days shampooing and cleaning the carpets,” he said.
Christian Services will open and offer limited services at the temporary location on April 18, and begin accepting donations of towels, washcloths, blankets, fans, underwear and more at that time.
Individuals can inquire about all accepted donations by calling 325-673-7531, and the link to financially support Christian Services can be found at www.cscabilene.org.
“I see that as a sad, sad day when it burned down,” Clark said. “But god is providing. He is showing his greatness. As a volunteer stood up and said in a meeting today, the Lord is chasing us with his goodness and mercy.”