The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 7, 2007

Spoken Word rebounds from baffling fire

By Mannix Porterfield

Trapped behind enemy lines in France six decades ago, a young West Virginia infantryman suddenly finds a German officer tapping him on the shoulder, then jamming an automatic weapon into his chest.

Roy Shrewsbury Sr. senses instant death, but for some inexplicable reason, the German’s firearm doesn’t discharge.

A short time later, after the Texas-based 36th Infantry Regiment captures an enemy outfit and its payroll, Shrewsbury taunts a captured lieutenant-general about Germany’s impending demise, telling him, “Hitler is kaput.”

Told well in advance that any money captured is worthless, not backed by gold, Shrewsbury holds up a massive bundle of German bills and lets the wind scatter them in all directions. Moments later, Shrewsbury gets the truth — any seized currency is as valuable as gold.

Stricken with malaria and hepatitis, while his unit embarks on a successful night patrol, Shrewsbury is left in weeds as cover from the Germans. Eventually, his condition worsens to the point he winds up in a Texas infirmary with four other dying soldiers and almost signs a paper allowing him to be used as a volunteer guinea pig for wartime experiments performed on the terminal in a California laboratory.

“I almost signed my name, but for some reason, something stopped me at the time,” he reflected. “I didn’t know why. Now, I’m healthier than I was when I was 20 years old.”

Yet, for all of his wartime experiences, some flirting with death itself, nothing had prepared Shrewsbury for the mystifying fire that destroyed Spoken Word Tabernacle, a church he founded in this region half a century ago.

“I’ve encountered a lot of conditions that really astonished me and things,” he said.

“I don’t know if I ever encountered anything that astonished me more than this.”

A baffling fire

On a muggy, mid-afternoon, last Aug. 7, a man living near Spoken Word Tabernacle on Scott Ridge Road, just off Interstate 64 overlooking Beaver, goes inside the church to switch on the air conditioning so the building will be cool in time for Wednesday night prayer service. He leaves the door open while attending to the task at hand.

Upon leaving, he makes sure the door is locked shut, says Shrewsbury, the onetime infantry sergeant and only pastor in the church’s history.

Before long, fire erupts inside and the heat is so intense and firefighters are frustrated in getting inside. Acrid smoke is billowing from every conceivable opening. Yet, not a flame can be found. When the man returned, the door is widely ajar.

Shrewsbury figures the arsonist sneaked inside a short time earlier and stayed hidden until the neighbor left.

Initial attention was riveted on a white van that happened by just as the fire became evident, but this turned out to be merely an onlooker who tried to sound an alarm, the pastor explained.

“We still don’t have an answer to what happened,” Shrewsbury said.

“It was definitely arson. This whole area was engulfed with tremendous heat and smoke. The smoke was so hot and intense. You could go around the building, put a hand on a brick, and the brick was hot. Five fire departments couldn’t find a flame in this building.”

Many a charred brick was split by the vehement heat, the pastor recalled.

An Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco agent advised Shrewsbury that an incendiary device apparently was used to touch off the fire but the heat was so magnified that no telltale evidence remained in the rubble and ashes. One thing is certain — it wasn’t anything electrical in nature.

“We didn’t even save a song book,” the pastor said. “We had to start from ashes again.”

A born-again sanctuary

Now, eight months later, Spoken Word Tabernacle is about to be reborn, with a re-dedication service set for July 22, although Shrewsbury hasn’t settled on what the sermon for the day is to be.

Inside last week, workmen were busy at a variety of tasks. All around, the pleasing odor of new wood abounded. The sanctuary might be a bit smaller but can still accommodate the 150-member flock. A baptismal is elevated so the congregation may watch new converts pass through the ceremony.

A coal operator in Kentucky, not a member of the church, provided heavy equipment and work crews to install stones used in the front of the baptismal. The church also features a nursery, a room for sound equipment and an upper room in the sanctuary to house video equipment or to absorb a spillover crowd.

Downstairs are the traditional Sunday School classrooms.

As he stood numbed in the parking lot the day of the fire, Shrewsbury’s first thought was that the fire and belching smoke might serve as a warning to the unbelievers to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ.

“We’re trying to keep people from going to a place like that,” he said.

Shrewsbury says he avoided any pangs of bitterness and immediately forgave the person or persons responsible, saying mental illness could have been the trigger. Or perhaps, he suggested, the culprit might have been a serial church burner, who found each successive target easier than the last, not unlike one who kills at random.

“I don’t have any ill will or animosity toward whoever did it,” he said.

“Yes, I have forgiven him. I have no trouble with that. I’ve never had any hard feelings to start with. We’ve had no discouragement at all. The Lord is fair. His ways are not our ways. You try not to figure out things or ways.”

The non-denominational church, at this location just over two decades, began humbly at another location near the airport in the early 1950s.

A pleasant man now living in his ninth decade, Shrewsbury has been the only pastor of this church, although others sharing its discipline are located in 50 to 60 countries.

“We’re not a denomination,” he said. “We believe in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. People from different faiths and all. We try to go by the Scriptures, by the Bible. The fellowship ministers all around the world. My wife and I travel as far as Australia.”

“I tell my congregation that all of you should go to heaven for putting up with me for so long,” he said.

Until the spiffy new church is opened, members will continue worshipping in an annex, spared when firefighters kept sheets of water on it after the baffling fire erupted last summer.

And that gives Shrewsbury ample time to get some lofty direction on his sermon for the new sanctuary’s dedication.

“Whatever the Lord will have us speak about,” he said.

“Our congregation hasn’t been in despair. They just took it as another event in life. We haven’t been downcast. We’re blessed.”

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