On the night of January 15, 1897, a fire broke out on the Buckner Orphans Home campus in the boys dormitory while all of the children and workers were sleeping. Mrs. Sallie Britton, the boys matron, awoke to find the space between the floors ablaze beneath her bed. When she rushed to call for help, the door behind her slammed and locked shut, as the floor of her room, along with her three sons, fell through. Sallie jumped over the second story railing to the ground below, where she burst into the first floor, rescuing five boys.
Other adults arrived and attempted to help, but 15 boys died that night and four others died later for a total of 19 casualties.
R.C. Buckner would write later: “The scene will never fade from my troubled astonished vision. I could smell the burning flesh of our dear ones before the fire died down sufficiently to reveal their charred remains. Weeping ones were to be comforted, bereaved mothers were to be strengthened.”
The fire was so tragic that in the days afterward, Father Buckner contemplated closing the home completely. But he didn’t.
Encouraged by friends around the country, he instead resolved that such a tragedy would never happen again. He went to work, determined to rebuild not only the boys dorm, but the entire campus, replacing the wooden buildings with brick ones.
By the end of 1897, less than a year after the fire, a new home had been built for the boys. The outpouring of donations from concerned friends across Texas helped ease the pain and grief of the Buckner family.
That fire, 125 years ago this month, remains the greatest crisis in Buckner’s 143-year-history. Today, we face a crisis of global proportions. An aggressive surge of COVID-19 is sending record numbers of people to hospitals around the world. And at Buckner, we are also seeing record numbers of positive cases unlike anything since the pandemic started two years ago.
It’s been said that we are defined as much by our response to a crisis as by the crisis itself. Buckner responded to the tragedy of that devastating fire 125 years ago by rallying to become a better organization. Staff, volunteers and donors answered the call to rebuild a better future.
Whether we realize it or not, we are being defined by the coronavirus crisis. And like those who went before us, we are answering the call. Our staff has risen to the occasion, going above and beyond normal duties to serve. Our donors are stepping up in unprecedented ways, setting an all-time record in 2021 for the most money ever given to Buckner, with nearly 19 million dollars in cash gifts to support our work.
I remember growing up in the 1960s. The decade started with great optimism. The country had moved past the pain of World War II. A youthful John F. Kennedy had been elected president and exciting new ideas were emerging everywhere. We literally set our sights on the moon.
But optimism simply wasn’t enough. The 60s would see President Kennedy assassinated and the country enter the Vietnam War. What the world needed was the way of hope. The two are not the same. Optimism is based on the circumstances of the moment, but hope is rooted in God’s faithfulness – regardless of the situation.
The Apostle Peter expresses the reason we have hope. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In his great mercy, he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
Jesus gives us a “new birth into a living hope.” That’s why, 125 years ago, this ministry rose from the ashes of a tragic fire. And it’s why, now, in 2022, we are confident that even this pandemic will not overwhelm us.
Our hope for this new year and for years to come is in Jesus Christ. It is through him and for him that we have the strength to serve.
God bless you as we serve together in the New Year.