Religious education building of Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church completely destroyed, no injuries.
The fire destroyed a modular structure called the Religious Education Zone. A separate building, housing the congregation’s sanctuary, fellowship hall, and offices, was undamaged.
The church is in a rural area between Kingsport and Johnson City in far eastern Tennessee and is adjacent to I-26. The fire was reported by a motorist on the highway. Fire personnel kept the fire from spreading to the main building. No one was at the church when the fire broke out. A snowfall covered the area shortly after the fire was extinguished.
The congregation, which has 136 adult members and more than 50 children and youth, was founded in 1958. The congregation purchased its rural property in the 1970s and moved the modular structure, which was destroyed Friday, onto it in 2000. The building was used initially for worship and for classrooms.
The congregation’s other building was built after 2000 and includes some unfinished classrooms. Work had begun three weeks ago to finish those classrooms, including installing wallboard and heating ducts. Riley said a work crew gathered at the church on Saturday to further that work, including installing bathroom fixtures, so the space could be used on Sunday.
“While tears were still being shed liberally here, these folks spent the day, in the midst of a snowfall, doing what was necessary to make our yet unfinished lower level rooms temporarily usable for our children and youth,” said Riley. “These were not built as extra rooms for the future, but to accommodate our growing RE program here. Now, with the loss of the RE Zone, we will crowd our children and youth into them, as well as every nook and cranny of the church building.”
Riley said the congregation has been working hard to grow. “When I got here two years ago they were in the midst of a capital drive,” she said. “They started covenant groups and they ran another fundraiser this fall to raise money to help finish the classrooms and to support the RE program in other ways.” Denee Mattioli was hired as a quarter-time director of religious education last spring.
The destroyed building was insured, but insurance will cover only part of the loss, she said. On top of all this, the congregation has been in the process of candidating ministers and expects to call a minister within weeks.
Even as the fire burned, Riley, Mattioli, and church members knew there was no question about having services on Sunday. “We knew families would want to be together,” said Riley. “At children’s time during worship we talked about how sad we were to lose the RE Zone, but we also agreed that what is of ultimate value, our friends, our values, our church—all of that remains.”
A fire fund has been established. Contributions can be sent to Holston Valley UU Church, P.O. Box 8383, Gray TN 37615. Checks should be made out to the Holston Valley UU Church Fire Fund.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.