Over our backyard fence one day in the summer of 2013, my next door neighbor Glenda told me about the tragedy. Gloom shadowed her face.
“Someone set fire to my church last night.”
The previous night, a couple members of Community Covenant Church—a church of two-hundred people in north Minneapolis—had gone to search for a lost key in a nearby field. Suddenly, they spotted smoke pluming from their place of worship, and they phoned for help.
After the fire was extinguished, the emergency crews discovered arsonists had broken in through a window, doused an accelerant on the beloved grand piano and torched it, leaving it in ashes. The blaze had melted the electronic equipment, damaged the pews, chairs, and altar, and soot blackened the walls. The water the firefighters had sprayed to drown the flames flooded the first floor. The congregants—seventy percent of whom were African American—also found vulgar racial epithets scrawled in spray paint on the building.
Twenty years earlier, the congregation had worked hard to raise the money to refurbish the piano. And the altar, having been found in an alley and rescued from the trash heap, had its own story. Both had been reclaimed—like the lives of the people who attended Community Covenant Church.
I grieved for Glenda—a new member—and for my friends Lynnea, Ivory, and Danielle whose voices rang out in song each Sunday in that house of God. The kids’ Vacation Bible School wrapped up their week the day after the fire, the leaders explaining to the children why they would now have to meet outside on the field next to the church. Lynnea, a Zumba instructor, relocated the church basement’s Saturday morning fitness classes to the Phyllis Wheatley Community Center across the street. And on the same field the VBS kids had used, the congregation gathered for worship the following Sunday.
“A church is not a building,” Pastor Luke Swanson of Community Covenant Church later told news sources. “A church is people.”
Five weeks after the tragedy, Minnehaha Academy hosted the Fire Relief Benefit Concert for the church. Our family sat in the auditorium with Glenda, savoring the choir’s music. Though small in number, its voices were as big as The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir.
“No matter what the test, whatever comes our way,” the choir trumpeted through song, “with Jesus on our side, we’re gonna make it.”
Pastor Luke stepped up to the mic, his hands rising along with his voice. “We serve a living God. And what I’m told is, He’s pretty good with ashes.”
Swept along by a holy fire, tears stung my eyes.
An outpouring of support raged for the small, inner-city church in a low-income Minneapolis neighborhood. A college preparatory school down the street loaned their building to the homeless parishioners, workers repaired the sanctuary, and someone donated a new piano.
Beauty from ashes.
Two years later, I remembered the fire, along with my friends.
“What was meant for harm, God intended for good,” Danielle told me.
Passion ignited Lynnea’s words. “God’s not tied to a building or our stuff. He’s sewn into our hearts.”
Then Ivory added, her eyes bright, “We were shaken, but our mission is still the same.”
Arsonists had tried to char the church’s message in the 1960s too.
“They didn’t like our congregation then, and there are people who don’t like it now,” Pastor Luke said.
But five decades earlier, evil hadn’t won either. Because like that day in 2013, there’s a Consuming Fire, and an arsonist’s flame is no match for His.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.