Greater Bell Zion Missionary Baptist Church, one of the oldest historically black churches in the county, burned to the ground Friday.
As the flames consumed it, people gathered across the street under the canopy of a stately live oak tree, grieving and sharing memories of growing up and growing old together in and around the church.
Black smoke, visible from miles away, boiled up into a blue sky above the historic section of West Texas City anchored by Greater Bell Zion. Heat from the flames reached across the street, hitting observers in the face.
Greater Bell Zion has stood for 134 years at the center of what was once called The Settlement neighborhood since it was founded in 1885, and became the backbone of the African-American community, according to a Texas Historical Commission marker standing on the curb in front of the church’s last remaining brick wall — a façade of three arched doors leading into the charred sanctuary.
“Some of the original pews were still in there,” said the Rev. Jerry Lee Jr., lead pastor since 2002, standing across the street tending to his congregation in person and by cell phone.
“The church is not the building,” Lee said. “The church is within us. What we’re watching is a bunch of history burning down right here.”
Lee began attending Greater Bell Zion at the age of 6, and became reacquainted with the church, 5917 Carver Ave., he’d always called home after being called to preach in 1988.
“It’s a beacon of light in this community,” he said. “A whole lot of people grew up here, were baptized here, married here, and a lot of the old saints were laid to rest here.”
Firefighting and emergency response vehicles from Hitchcock, Santa Fe, Dickinson and League City stood parked up and down Carver Avenue and around the corner on South Bell Drive, assisting the Texas City Fire Department as massive fountains of water rained over the church.
It took nearly three hours, from when the fire was discovered at 9:45 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., to get the flames under control. A steady breeze blew them away from the nearest house, toward the woods behind the building. Firefighters kept a steady stream flowing onto the trees while the building fell, wall by wall, section by section.
The exact cause of the fire was undetermined Friday, Lee said. Two men had been working on the building’s air-conditioning system that morning, Lee said.
Both men were safe and had spoken to firefighters before leaving; no one was injured in the inferno, Lee said.
The fire began in an attic and quickly spread across the top of an annex, a low building housing a fellowship hall and some classrooms, Lee said.
In the 1950s, when the old sanctuary was being updated and remodeled, the annex consisted of two military barracks donated to the church and joined together. Over the years, the annex had been upgraded and modernized with a new roof and floors, he said.
The church had kept up its insurance and already had calls from several area churches, offering their buildings to Greater Bell Zion for worship until the congregation is able to rebuild, Lee said.
When Hurricane Ike hit in 2008, Greater Bell Zion hosted congregations from Galveston whose buildings were ruined, offering them a place to worship, he said.
“We’ll go over to Hitchcock to Greater St. Matthews,” Lee said.
The Rev. William Randall, pastor at Greater St. Matthews, grew up at Greater Bell Zion and immediately reached out, Lee said.
Gayla Allen of Texas City was driving on Interstate 45 when she saw the smoke billowing over West Texas City, she said.
She drove straight to the neighborhood and the church where she grew up. The great-granddaughter of one of the original settlement founders, David Hobgood, Allen grew up a few blocks from the church on Hobgood Street near her grandparents, James and Ruby Hobgood.
She pointed to an open green lawn adjacent to the burning church.
“Over there was Woodlawn Elementary School,” she said. The school was torn down years ago. Lincoln High School, across from Greater Bell Zion, next to the field with the majestic oak, still stands, but is boarded up.
“I grew up playing here,” Allen said through tears. “I grew up in the church then went away to other places. I just came back last Sunday to visit.”
The membership at Greater Bell Zion has shrunk in recent years, following a national trend of aging congregations that are unable to draw new members as their elders pass on.
Lee estimated membership stands at about 200, but some of those are living in nursing homes or elsewhere, many of them unable to attend regularly.
“Some of the older ones are taking it very hard,” Lee said. From the side of his pickup truck, he dispatched members to go and check on the elders. The oldest one still alive must be 100, he said.
The church was the center of community activities such as a Thursday night exercise class, Wednesday Bible study, youth group and mass choir, Lee said.
“There were folks in and out all the time,” he said. “Thank God nobody was there this morning. We had just finished sending off a care package to the Bahamas.”
A pile of checks from church members had sat on his desk for a week and he had just got them in the mail two days ago, he said.
A sobbing woman walked up to Lee, her face in her hands. He raised an arm and pulled her close. A younger woman stood watching, dabbing at her eyes.
“That’s her granddaughter,” Lee said. “She’s got babies in the church now,” he said, then gestured to her and lifted his other arm. “Come on over. There’s room for you here, too.”
The Rev. Israel S. Campbell, an escaped slave before coming to Texas, founded the church that became Greater Bell Zion. Campbell is known as the “father of Black Texas Baptists,” according to the historic marker.
“This is not happening just for no reason,” Lee said. “I was at Bible study Wednesday night teaching believers to not let their circumstances control their faith.”
Around him, parishioners and neighbors hugged each other, gave each other bottles of water and stared at the flames.
Across the street, the building fell piece by piece to the ground. The historic marker remained unscathed.