BANKS COUNTY, Ga. - In late 1998, the Rev. Luis Ortiz of New Salem United Methodist Church chose the slogan "The Fire Still Burns" as a motto for his congregation. A month later, an arson fire destroyed the New Salem church building.
For some time after the fire, the Rev. Ortiz kept the new slogan to himself, afraid even to pass out his new business cards with the motto printed on them. Eventually, though, he said he realized it was the ideal saying for the church during its rebuilding period.
"As God started revealing to me his plan, I thought, no, that's a perfect slogan. ... Even though the man's fire is completely extinguished, the Holy Spirit is still burning alive and strong," he said.
More than a year and a half after the fire destroyed the small Banks County church and killed a local volunteer firefighter, a self-proclaimed Satanist charged in the New Salem fire awaits trial in Indiana on charges he set church fires in that state.
The Rev. Ortiz said the congregation continues to follow the case of Jay Ballinger, the 37-year-old Indiana man accused of burning New Salem and 32 other churches in California, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia, including Johnson United Methodist Church in Oconee County.
According to federal agents, Mr. Ballinger said he and girlfriend Angela Wood, an exotic dancer from Athens, traveled the country setting fires to churches. Mr. Ballinger was set to stand trial in Indiana this week, but the trial has been postponed.
Most people at New Salem are no longer angry at Mr. Ballinger, and many pray for him, the Rev. Ortiz said.
"They forgive him. There are a few that probably hold grudges, but that's not what the church is about," the minister said. "Our prayer is that in the duration (he's in prison), he'll be saved and accept Jesus as his savior."
The Rev. Ortiz said the congregation dwells more on its new building than on its devastating loss.
"I call this my modern-day Noah's Ark," the Rev. Ortiz said, standing in front of the church recently. "The Lord said, `You build it, and I'll supply everything you need.' We laugh about it, but it's true. Just when we need something, someone shows up and offers it."
Those offers have poured in from throughout the world and the community, the Rev. Ortiz said. An Atlanta builder provided decorative columns worth $6,000. One man in the community donated a $10,000 stained glass window; members of the congregation are providing six other windows.
Church groups from Georgia and as far away as Palestine, Vt., and Washington state volunteered weeks of construction labor - the Rev. Ortiz said about 90 percent of the labor was done by volunteers.
Church members also pitched in with fund-raising efforts - final sales of cookbooks and gospel music CDs are expected to help close the $7,000 gap in what the church still owes for building expenses.
When the building is complete - possibly by the end of next month - it will be nearly three times the size of the original, with 14 Sunday school classrooms, a narthex, a kitchen and a church office. The sanctuary will seat 300 people - twice as many as before.
"This is a million-dollar church, and it's going to be completed for $400,000. It really is a modern-day miracle," the Rev. Ortiz said.
The congregation plans eventually to send Mr. Ballinger photos of the newly constructed church, the Rev. Ortiz said, to "show him that Jesus has won."
But even as the congregation celebrates its good fortune and looks toward moving into its new building, memories of the New Year's Eve 1998 fire that destroyed the original 159-year-old church building stay with them.
"I don't think it will ever be forgotten," said Brenda Nicholson, a lifelong member of New Salem, whose two children had weddings in the old building. "(The building) has been there all of your life and then all of the sudden it's not there. It's tough."
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