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The Burning of my Church
It started with a spark from something in the office. That day in 1994 would change the lives of the worship community at St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Vancouver/Orchards, Washington, and touch the lives of people around the world. I was doing homework in the living room when the call came, but I didn't get to the phone in time. I will remember the message left on the answering machine for the rest of my life: "You may have heard about the fire. We will have church on Sunday in the parking lot. Please bring chairs and a hymnal if you have one."
It was almost time for the news. My hands were shaking as I called my mom at work and told her the church had burned. She took a break to watch the news as well. Pictures flashed on the screen: the piano crumbling; the charred cross at the altar; the organ burning as the firefighters put it out. Metal chairs twisted; some still there but covered with soot. Above and in front of it all, shining in the water and the firelight, stood the white metal cross. It was a beacon of hope, a light in the darkness of the crumbling ash of the building, reminding us that God was still there even in the midst of this disaster.
Little did we know that God would turn all this into a renewal for our congregation. As the ashes were sifted through, miracles emerged. The service that Sunday was held in the parking lot using chairs brought by members and metal folding chairs that had been stored in the unburned part of the church. The fire had stopped at the fire doors leading from the "old" part of the church (sanctuary, office, kitchen, fellowship room, built in 1972) into the "new" part of the church (education wing, small chapel, secondary office, Sunday School rooms, built in 1987). It was not surprising that the fire doors worked; what shocked everyone was that the bush outside was burned on one side and not the other, in a vertical line in the same place as the door behind it.
In the sanctuary, I discovered a box of worship song pages that one of my friends had brought back from a high school leadership convention. The song on one side was "Gather Us In", and on the other side was "Spirit Blowing Through Creation", which has as a line in the chorus, "Burn in our weary souls/Blow through our silent lips/Come now awake us". Behind the sanctuary, in the room the pastor uses to prepare for the service, the complete set of handbells was safe in a cupboard. One of the church members whose wife was in the bell choir was dying of cancer, and his wish was to buy a third octave. The bells played at his funeral that fall, and soon after the complete octave was purchased.
In the youth room, which was off the fellowship room, the tv melted and its cart collapsed due to the heat. A basketball that was stored next to the tv on the top shelf of the cart was still able to hold air, and even bounced. It almost was playable, except for the piece of tv casing melted onto one side.
Under some of the rubble and ash, someone discovered a cardboard box. It was streaked with smoke damage, but unburned. Inside were wooden crosses lovingly hand-carved by a church member who had just passed away a few weeks before. Three more boxes of the crosses were found undamaged as well, and they were passed out to congregants as reminders of the fire. My mother still has ours.
Offering baskets for a few Sundays after the fire were Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets, donated by the manager of the KFC across the street. Communion was served using the intinction method, where the bread or wafer is dipped into the wine, instead of individual glasses, and using plastic drink cups that had been blessed.
Calls were made to various halls, schools, and other places where the congregation might assemble. Someone at the Farmer's Insurance building five blocks away suggested the church meet in their cafeteria, and a few Sundays later it was decided to accept. The church held services there for two years, with volunteers coming early in the morning to create a worship space and staying after to put the chairs and tables back. Sunday School and weekday activities were still held in the education wing.
During the rebuilding process, there were the normal growing pains every organized group experiences: differing opinions, strong personalities, too many ideas to organize, not enough funds. But the church grew as a community, and once again we affirmed the beliefs we celebrated. God in the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was with us through the process and beyond. The Maasai congregations in Tanzania we had helped during a famine in 1992 donated money, which was matched by a generous donor in our community and used to buy a roof. Altar cloths were donated by another church. Dishes and other kitchen necessities were donated by the local Sons of Norway, which was redoing their industrial-sized kitchen.
The plans for the new building included a glass spire, with a white cross on top, reminiscent of the white cross that remained in the parking lot. Once building began, the old cross that had stood over the fire was taken down and hauled away.
Throughout all this, the church continued its ministry, visiting people in nursing homes, hosting the local Boy Scout troop, going on a youth mission trip to build Habitat for Humanity houses in Texas, and building ramps for home-bound seniors in wheelchairs.
The brother of our pastor was a potter, and he made African-inspired mugs and other dishes. These were sold and the profits used to partially finance the new building. Other churches and community members donated time, money, and building materials. Church members donated offerings of money and time as well, and constructed was started.
The potter made communion goblets and a bread plate. Our friends in Tanzania sent over woven baskets for collecting offering. The altar and the baptismal font were built of wood with contrasting inlaid strips of ebony, also known as blackwood, Tanzania's national tree.
On Palm Sunday 1996, the congregation paraded from the Farmer's Insurance building to our new home and held the first service in the current building. The new building incorporates the education wing that survived the fire, a fellowship room that transforms into a basketball court for the youth outreach program, the airy worship space, and Sunday School rooms. During the week, it is host to the various church activities, as well as community meetings. On Sunday mornings, it resonates with the music of a beautiful organ and the three octaves of handbells, as well as joyful singing.
With all the miracles of what was first thought of as a tragedy, and all the wonderful lessons learned during that time of growing and renewing the commitment of community and faith, God's people in this place have reason to be joyous.