The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Life!

March 31, 2013

Through fire and water

Pastor/retired firefighter leads Sunday services at fire station



Deciding what to write about for this Easter was difficult. On the one hand, I knew the Martha Stewart-ites were gnashing their teeth for tips on spring door wreaths. Home chefs wanted recipes for getting rid of extra Peeps. Well, I imagined they did, at least. I had scrawled an idea down last year roughly titled “The Lay of the Land — small scale chicken farming.” But what, truly, did any of that have to do with Easter? All my editorial eggs were in one unsatisfyingly empty basket, until I remembered Charles Lilly. The battle grew to one of wreaths, chickens, marshmallow bunnies and the firefighting pastor. The firefighting pastor and his little church that could, won.

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Depending on perspective, calling someone by “firefighter” and “pastor” qualifies as redundancy.

“As a fireman, I put out one kind of fire but now, hopefully, I can start another kind,” says chaplain, pastor and retired fireman Charles Lilly.

Lilly began working with Beckley Fire Department in 1972 to combat outbreaks of a familiar destruction — the end of businesses, homes, oftentimes dreams.

Like other firemen, compelled by an inborn faculty for service the average civilian may not understand, he wasn’t one to approach a burning structure with fear and trembling, but with a sense of purpose. “There were one or two times when I worried I might not make it out of a fire.”

Still, in his last five years as chaplain for the fire department, he has found himself conducting funerals for associates and their family members, visiting the sick from among their ranks and counseling one distressed fireman, he recalls, inside his vehicle for upward of three hours. In his position as spiritual support for a notoriously tough lot, his phone isn’t ringing off the hook, but it still rings.

“The men at the fire department are strong. With a lot of them, asking for help is a sign of weakness.”

Some long their entire lives for a single calling. Charles Lilly got two.

“Firefighters, EMS, policemen… they have special protection from God and a special calling. It’s more than a job.”

Everybody, says Lilly, is called for something: to raise a family; to raise a grandchild who would otherwise have no protection or upbringing, for instance. For each calling, there’s an internal drive and supernatural protection and strength to those who carry it out, he maintains. “ God always provides for his calling for those willing to accept it.”

Seven years ago, Lilly got his second calling, one that had been holding for a while, believes his wife of 44 years, Nancy, who says he always truly knew preaching was on the other end of the line. When he finally answered, “… it was the appointed time,” he explains. Time for the different kind of fire.

“Of all the uniforms I’ve ever worn, this one is the one I’m most proud of,” Lilly says, indicating his chaplain’s jacket.

There are arguably three things West Virginia has plenty of — churches, post offices and fire stations. Lilly’s “Hope Ministries Outreach” is technically two out of three. He approached Beaver Volunteer Fire Department chief Michael Cowger seven months ago with a request to hold a nondenominational worship service in the station, open to the public on Sunday mornings. Cowger agreed.

“As far as I know, this is the only church inside a fire station.”

Just inside, past the hulking lineup of yellow fire trucks at ease and beyond the BINGO signage is a modest storage room-turned-sanctuary. Nancy refers to it as a chapel, honoring it still as a respite for firefighters, whose lockers line the periphery as an ever-present reminder of the room’s day job. Here Lilly now imparts the fire he calls “hope.”

“I’ve heard firefighters say when they were in a situation that it was like looking into the pits of hell. And it is — those kinds of jobs cause you to face your own mortality younger than what you normally would.” While there’s no escaping mortality for anyone, Lilly turns to the lesson for hope taught in the Bible through resurrection, the same that will be preached in countless churches across the world this Easter Sunday.

“Easter, to me, is hope and faith. If you take away faith and hope you take away what man has to look forward to. The Bible says, if only in this life we have hope, we’d be of all men most miserable. People who have no faith have no hope tomorrow will be any better than today. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. For those who have hope in The Resurrection and in the Lord Jesus, you not only have hope for today, but for eternity.”

Resurrection can be of surprisingly practical importance. The resurrection of dead marriages, of purpose for people with no observable future, of recovery from complete personal failure, lists Lilly. “Fires we can see in the natural are devastating. But the trials and tribulations you can’t see, ones people carry with them, they cause the most destruction. I’ve seen situations that would kill a person, spiritually speaking, and I’ve seen God resurrect them. One word from God can change a person’s entire future and their eternity.”

Nancy is her husband’s biggest supporter, and she’s hoping he’ll start a trend. “The volunteer fire departments are part of the community. When you put a chapel with services in a fire department, you are offering another service to the community. They can be another part of the crisis team.”

Lilly’s little congregation in the Beaver VFD runs about 20 on a good Sunday, but he isn’t discouraged by that, nor is he concerned with numbers or planning a building program. From a man acquainted with fire comes a refreshingly aqueous spiritual observation.

“Many people today don’t feel like attending church is important. Everybody has a pond. Find your pond,” contends Lilly.

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Hope Ministries Outreach services, held inside Beaver Volunteer Fire Department at 147 3rd St., Beaver, are 10:30 a.m. each Sunday morning.

— E-mail: lshrewsberry@register-herald.com

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