CHESAPEAKE, Va. - It has been more than a week since a fire destroyed the Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church. The fire, which investigators say was caused by a lightning strike, started in the early morning hours of August 28.
The church’s pastor, Sandi Hutchinson, arrived to the scene as fire crews continued battling the fire that morning.
"The day that I came up and I saw that there was nothing left here, I was completely shocked,” Hutchinson told News 3. “I fell to my knees."
The church, along Long Ridge Road, was 153 years old. It was founded by free African-Americans in 1866.
The rubble is still visible and the smell of burnt debris still lingers, but now there's another concern for the church – vandals.
“They've been trying to go through the front and take, you know, people want bricks and that kind of thing,” Hutchinson said. "First of all, it's dangerous. There are nails, we don't know what else is there yet."
The fire tape is also still up, cordoning off the scene to the public. Something else Hutchinson said will go up are cameras.
"So anybody who's caught trespassing, they will be prosecuted,” she said.
Regardless, church leaders are optimistic. Hutchinson said neighbors and people from across the region are rallying behind them.
Local motorcycle riders also held a benefit ride for the church.
"Overnight, they said, 'We just want to show you that we're with you,’” Hutchinson recalled. “They planned a mile drive to the church."
As for what is next, Hutchinson said, there will be a new church.
"So often people want to hang onto the old and they cry, but it's not coming back,” Hutchinson said. “What's going to come back is something greater, because that's what God does."
The rubble and debris is expected to be cleaned up starting this week and the church is working with a contractor. Hutchinson said they hope to rebuild the church within the next 18 months.
She also said bricks from the former church will be collected, with some given to long-time congregants of the church. Hutchinson said long lines of families have attended Gabriel Chapel A.M.E. Zion Church throughout its time.
Monetary donations are being accepted to help in the rebuilding process. The church set up a PO Box address to receive donations: PO Box 2232, Chesapeake, Virginia, 23327.
Checks can be made out to the church and should have "building fund" in the memo.
Hutchinson also said GoFundMe pages have popped up with the church’s name, but the church has not set up any GoFundMe pages at this time.