Co-pastor rebuilds, finds hope after Briar Creek church fire

Rhonda Kinsey, co-pastor of Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, teaches a Bible study class at the church on July 15, 2015.
Rhonda Kinsey, co-pastor of Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, teaches a Bible study class at the church on July 15, 2015.

Shortly after midnight June 24, Rhonda Kinsey received an urgent call. Her east Charlotte church was on fire.

At first, the co-pastor of Briar Creek Road Baptist Church didn’t panic. She assumed a pot left on a stove or another accident had caused a minor fire. But she soon learned the blaze had damaged the youth building that housed the church’s summer camp, which she ran.

The fire at the predominantly African-American church, which was ruled arson, followed the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Five other black churches in the South also burned, with three investigated as arson.

Kinsey, 46, was devastated. She thought she’d have to close the camp for the summer.

The fate of the program remained unclear as Kinsey stood in shock staring at the fire.

With firefighters’ permission, she went into the church’s still smoky office around 5:15 a.m. that morning to collect the binder with her students’ personal information.

She called up every parent and let them know the camp would be closed for at least a couple days.

Camp goes on

The youth wing, which was heavily damaged, held the game room, gym, weight room, kitchen and fellowship hall.

But hope remained. With the help of Bob Lowman, executive director of the Metrolina Baptist Association, Kinsey didn’t have to cancel camp, known as Camp “Son” Shine, for the roughly 40 kids.

“It seems as though instantly I felt this wrap of love by God, I just felt it,” Kinsey said. “Bob Lowman ... no sooner than I said, ‘I gotta cancel camp,’ said, ‘Oh, no, I have another church building for you.’”

He found space in a nearby site in Plaza Midwood that was home to Green Memorial Baptist Church before it dissolved recently.

Kinsey pours her heart and soul into the camp, said Kinsey’s oldest daughter, Mercedez, 20, who is Briar Creek’s youth minister. She said Kinsey is committed to Camp “Son” Shine in “more ways than one.”

“People think that this is just a summer job,” Mercedez said. “But we’re working on Camp ‘Son’ Shine the whole year, getting connections, places, field trips. She’s committed to children.”

Their entire family is heavily involved in the church and camp. Rhonda Kinsey and husband Mannix were members of the congregation for 11 years before they became co-pastors in January 2013.

Besides Mercedez, Kinsey’s oldest son, Mannix Jr., helps out at the camp. Her youngest daughter, Mercy, is a camper. Kinsey’s cousin, Raeniece Wilkerson, serves as food service coordinator.

Rebuilding hearts, lives

The outpouring of support from the community has allowed Kinsey to rebuild at an unusually swift rate. Two online fundraisers have collectively brought in more than $250,000 for the six predominantly black churches that burned in the South. Briar Creek was to be the first to receive money.

“I can’t even put into words the support – the outpouring of love – that we’ve been receiving,” Kinsey said. “It’s just been amazing. We’ve lost so much (for the children) in the fire, but to see that – once the plea went out – we have so many supporters.”

Clean-up will start this week, Lowman said, with Samaritan’s Purse coordinating.

Kinsey said the major rebuild is happening inside the hearts of the congregation. In the midst of such a difficult time, she said, it would be easy to get caught up in anger.

“Without my faith, I would probably not be in a place that would be healthy, in terms of my thoughts, my emotions,” Kinsey said.

She said she recognizes things could be worse.

“No one got hurt, no lives were lost. We don’t have to plan any funerals, any memorials,” she said, her voice cracking. “So as tough as it is, we still have a victory. … This is a time for us to help rebuild hearts that may have bitterness and anger in it.”

Lowman, from the Metrolina Baptist Association, said he was impressed with Kinsey’s willingness to forgive.

“They haven’t been vengeful (and) I haven’t seen anger in them. There isn’t a desire to lash back or attack anyone,” Lowman said. “There’s a desire to love and forgive whoever did this.”

A pillar of strength

Weeks after the fire, Kinsey sits behind her desk overflowing with books, binders and memorabilia. She has thrown her back out under the stress but never takes a day off – she continues on to ensure the kids remain happy.

Wilkerson, camp cook and Kinsey’s cousin, said she “thanks God for (Kinsey) every day.”

“Rhonda is an amazing woman of God, a woman, period,” Wilkerson said. “She is the same no matter where she’s at. No matter who’s around. She’s a big ball of love.”

And the staff, Wilkerson and others say, will make sure the camp returns stronger next year.

Said Wilkerson: “Camp is going to be poppin’ next year.”

Have a tip?

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is offering a $2,500 reward for any information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible for the arson. Contact ATF at 1-888-ATF-FIRE (1-888-283-3473).

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