I have always been at home in a church. Before I knew what being Christian meant, before I knew what faith was, a church was a second home to me. Let me add that I am not a conservative, leaning to right, person of faith that takes everything in holy scripture at face value. My raison d’etre is from an Episcopal Church poster: “Jesus died to take away your sins. Not your mind.” I believe that having faith and living into my baptismal covenant gives me a new chance to get things right with God every day, especially on the days when I screw up, a new challenge. It came as no surprise to them when I announced to my immediate family and closest friends that I sought holy orders in the Episcopal Church as a vocational deacon – the third ordained order. I was born for this.
With the calling, the title, the collar and vestments come responsibility. I am a leader in my new parish of Good Shepherd Berkeley. The ministry given to me is one of presence, of quiet listening at times, vocal advocation for social justice at others.
Good Shepherd Episcopal Church is two blocks from my home in Berkeley and after my assignment there in June, I looked forward to spending quiet hours in prayer in the lovely neo-gothic nave or at my desk in the sacristy. If you knew how noisy and active my household is, you’d understand why I’d go down to the church for a few hours on Saturday, or in the evenings.
I’ve had to adjust my pattern somewhat. You see, on October 20th, the church burned and the sacristy, and pretty much everything in it, was lost. Not only the little place I could call my sanctuary, but the nave was seriously damaged and we lost our beautiful window of The Good Shepherd, there was damage to some of the other windows, and the interior of the nave was charred. The firefighters who responded grabbed our Bible off the pulpit and carried it to safety and did everything they could to save as much of the church building as possible.
It will take us a year to restore the church to its former beauty. We will replace our beloved treasures with new ones and start making new memories. I’m wearing the key to the doors that were broken down around my neck.
A sign of God’s inward and outward grace and work within us was the response of the congregation – a small, tightly-knit, loving and small family. Rather than wring our hands and say, “What do we do?” we asked, “Let’s start now to rebuild. Let’s make some calls – when do you want to meet?” The following morning, upon seeing the damage in the harsh overcast light, the layers of foam like snow on the ground, the blacken lump that was my desk, I shed tears for and with my congregation. The fatigue of standing in the cold the night before watching the firefighters shoot foam into the broken roof of the church, the sound of saws making openings for access to the fire, walking home at 2:00 a.m. with four inches of foam riding up my shoes and jeans, was nothing compared to this.
We hugged one another, we wept, we exclaimed with joy as we found little things that survived, thanked God that no one was hurt, stared mournfully at the gaping hole where the Good Shepherd window was set, and the protective grill dangling from the frame, banging gently against the side of the church.
Then we got to work.
The parish hall survived. We had a place to continue our meal program and outreach to the neighborhood. We had a place to hold classes. Most importantly, we had a worship space on the site so we could see the Phoenix rising from the ashes.
Everyone helped set up for that the first Sunday in the hall. A month later, it seems normal and right to worship there. I’ve been checking in with everyone to see how they’re doing, if they need anything and the response I’ve been getting has been how wonderful everyone has been to pull together and hold each other in prayer and see the job done.
The Word is the Word no matter where it is proclaimed. The wine and the bread are given in agape wherever two or three are gathered.
We’ve pulled together and started looking towards the future. In another year, the church, the lovely building my daughter called “Sleeping Beauty’s Castle” will most likely be restored to its 134 year old beauty.
The congregation will meet again in the church, rather the parish hall. Something tells me, however, that the love that grew stronger in the aftermath of the fire, will encircle us in the restored space as it always has. This fire will be yet another memory to recall in years to come.
The fire may have taken our precious things but it only made something more precious even stronger and greater.
The love we have through Christ that keeps us going.
We are lambs rising from the fire and ashes.