YARMOUTH — When his South Carolina church burned down, the Rev. Patrick Mellerson never thought people from Maine would help him rebuild.
His congregation is predominantly black, and all he knew about Maine at the time was that it was cold and inhabited mostly by white people.
But Yarmouth’s churches joined a nationwide effort to help Mellerson, and on Jan. 8, a bus load of about 40 people will travel from Yarmouth to Orangeburg, S.C., to celebrate the opening of a new church.
The construction of the church has united these two dissimilar communities. In doing so, it has taught important lessons to Mainers and South Carolinians alike about racial understanding and tolerance for other cultures.
“It has brought us closer to our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us, don’t dress like us and don’t worship like us,” said Mellerson, who is black and has twice visited Yarmouth in the past year and a half. “It’s been awesome.”
“It’s wonderful that they have a new church,” said Nancy Dix, a member of the First Universalist Church in Yarmouth. “But this has helped Yarmouth as much as anybody else. ”
Butler Chapel was a small, white stucco church that sat in the shade of a big oak tree at the end of a dirt road. It was eight miles outside Orangeburg, a town of 13,000 people.
Mellerson said a group of white teen-agers who had frequently vandalized the church broke in on March 31, 1996, and accidentally started the fire. The youths got into a scuffle and a candle fell.
The fire was not a case of arson, like other black churches that burned between January 1995 and July 1996.
Dix, a social worker in Falmouth’s schools, had seen media reports of various church burnings in the South and wanted to help.
“It looked like hatred and intolerance,” said Dix. “And if the point of that was to drive people apart, the appropriate reaction was to bring people together.”
The Rev. Erik Wikstrom of the First Universalist Church and other church leaders in Yarmouth raised money for Butler Chapel at the 1996 Yarmouth Clam Festival.
The $500,000 church construction was completed in early December. The money came from the National Council of Churches, the National Congress of Black Churches, about $70,000 in insurance payments and thousands of dollars of donations from individual churches.
Yarmouth’s donations totaled about $2,000 for construction and about $5,000 to pay for the bus trip to Orangeburg. Six Yarmouth churches raised the money, along with the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Kennebunk.
“This has shown me there are more good people than bad, ” Mellerson said. “I haven’t always felt that way. ”