Standing on the cracked concrete roadside, the women went through smoky, blackened clothes to see if anything could be salvaged.
At 101 Short St., bordering Old Main Street, what used to be a home – where the brass numbers even melted off the charred bricks – men carted out burned boxes and furniture that was melted and reduced to gray ash.
The medications that 70-year-old Annie Thompson takes each day were melted inside her plastic daily dosage tray. The Rev. Sam Thompson’s medications were scorched inside a burned box.
For now, the 76-year-old preacher will have to live with the itchy skin condition that ails him.
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After their home burned Wednesday morning, the couple slept that night at the homeless shelter they have run next door for almost 20 years.
Annie slept sitting up at one end of a blue couch in the living room of the shelter. Sam, with two metal knee replacements, did the same at the other end. About all they had left in the world, it seemed, was piled between them.
“Didn’t think that anyone we help here should give up their bed for me,” said Sam Thompson. “We are here for them – even if I don’t have a house myself.”
Sitting in the living room of the homeless shelter, the couple scoffed at the notion that their lives were ruined.
After all, the men’s homeless shelter was still standing, at full capacity overnight. The women’s shelter also housed clients. The Tender Hearts thrift store two doors down was busy, and the meals for shut-ins, the homeless and the broke and broken were cooked and packaged and delivered at God’s Kitchen behind the destroyed house.
The ministries the Thompsons have run for two decades along with their church, New Beginnings Baptist down the street, did not stop for fire.
“God is right here,” said Annie Thompson.
“We have our lives, and we have a God who loves us and we serve him still,” said Sam Thompson.
Sam Thompson said he and his wife have been married 53 years. Annie Thompson said it was 52.
“It is 52 years,” chuckled Sam Thompson. “She says it is, it is. End of discussion.”
Into the shelter’s living room strode Mike Wallace, missions director of the York Baptist Association. New Beginnings has been a member for decades. Over the years, they have helped hundreds of people who had nothing.
“If it takes having a Pastor Sam and Annie Appreciation Day in York County, then that is what we will do,” Wallace said. “This is a man, a family, a church, who have given everything to help others.”
York Baptist Association member churches will collect for the Thompsons this weekend, and the association has set up a fund to help them. A pair of churches in nearby Lake Wylie also will collect money to help. Clover Community Bank, where the Thompsons keep their ministry accounts, is accepting the money.
Cassie Siverd of Clover coordinated a company-wide collection where she works in Charlotte. She knows the ministry, after buying a table at the thrift store and seeing the lives saved all around the properties.
“I have seen firsthand what Pastor Sam and his ministry have done for people,” Siverd said. “He is a saint.”
Saint or not, the home and almost everything in it is gone. Thompson and his wife never complained on Thursday, the day after the fire. Not once. Sam Thompson had to escape the fire wearing nothing but his shorts, saving his family and describing it as casually as someone ordering lunch.
“There isn’t a single thing we have to worry about,” Sam Thompson said. “We have given in our lives because it is our role to do so. We are here today to give some more.”
Dozens of people who have known the Thompsons and their ministries for the needy people of western York County came by Thursday. Many brought money. One woman bought food for everybody.
Next door to the shelter, so many who had been helped by the Thompsons helped go through the remains of the burned house once the fire was finally out. Inside, roof beams had fallen and it appeared as if nothing could be saved. The men worked on anyway.
“Pastor, I found the handbag!” came the call from one of the men.
Annie Thompson’s purse was brought out. It was burned. But inside, the wallet that has her identification and old, irreplaceable pictures of family were intact. Keys were found, and so were other items that would take weeks, months and dollars to replace.
“Praise Jesus,” said Annie Thompson.
Another man found Sam Thompson’s scorched wallet underneath burned timbers.
“My driver’s license, our bank cards,” Sam Thompson said. “Whoever says God is not great never saw this little miracle.”
In through the front door barged a woman using a cane for support, a one-woman Marshall Plan named Ann Guin. She talked about the Thompsons from years of interaction, describing them as Clover’s caretakers for the poor who have sacrificed their own lives for others.
“Oh, Annie!” she called out.
“Miss Ann!” said Annie Thompson, still in her pajamas – about all she has left.
The two women embraced in the tiny kitchen of the homeless shelter beneath a Bible verse that speaks of helping the poor. Guin, a retired nurse, has volunteered for years to help the homeless who live at the shelter with basics such as blood pressure screenings.
“I love you, Annie,” Guin said.
“I know you do dear, and we love you,” replied Annie Thompson.
Guin offered all of her support. She left a sealed card with the Thompsons before climbing into a truck and roaring off to get more help.
Inside the card was $500.
Sam Thompson slipped out the door. He walked, slowly and quietly on those artificial knees. He went between the homeless shelter and the back door of the burned house. He walked in and looked around at what was left of his home and the possessions of a lifetime.
Still, Sam Thompson stood there smiling.
“This was my house and that is all it was,” he said. “Bricks and wood.”
He sifted through soaked insulation, charred wood and the melted plastic of televisions and a computer and so many more lost items. He was looking for something, without saying a word.
Finally, there it was. Underneath some fabric, old curtains and coats that had protected it from the flames was a walnut frame, ovalish rectangular. Inside, under glass somehow unbroken, was a picture of a young black woman with light-colored eyes.
The eyes did not look at the camera. They looked unfocused. The picture itself was a bit unfocused, too, in that fuzzy way that pictures taken around World War II look.
The first and only tear Sam Thompson had cried since the fire seeped out.
“My mother,” he said. “She was from down near Abbeville, South Carolina. She was born blind. That’s why her eyes are the way they are in the picture. She died 74 years and four months ago, when I was a baby.
“This... this is the only picture I have of her. It is the only picture of her in the whole world. Might be the only picture record that she ever was alive.”
Sam Thompson walked out into the sunlight to look at the picture of his mother. He raised his hands toward the sky, then put the picture down, walking away to help the homeless. He had to look after those people, who are just like him.
The picture of his mother lay on a wobbly table. Sam Thompson looked at it one last time.
“She was beautiful. She still is. She is right here with me.”