Losing a Building, Not a Church
A devastating church fire offers lessons in impermanence and perspective
At 5:30am Sunday someone driving up Route 9 saw our church on fire and called the fire department. Orange flames flew heavenward, taking with them everything that the 170-year-old building contained, including our prized grand piano which we’d fundraised for, parishioners buying individual keys of the 88 needed; our healing quilt that Annie Kner made for the auction of 2008, a quilt deemed too beautiful for any one person to own. We decided to purchase it for the church to act as our stained glass window. When a member of the congregation needed healing, we sent the quilt out to wrap that person in. Arnold Westwood, our beloved 88-year-old friend, died wrapped in the quilt.
I used to live in a 15-passenger Dodge Ram van, touring the country in a folk rock band called The Nields. Our band was a great success, but that success took a toll on me, and after a lot of pain, I began to make a new life for myself, with what at the time seemed a flimsy reed: the guidance of God. I was in search of three things: the ability to know and follow God’s will for me; a church to join; and a partner with whom I could make a family.
On a cold spring morning in March, Tom and I entered the little one-room building with the tin roof and no bathroom and found a seat in the second pew from the front. When Steve began to preach, he talked about the questions more than the solutions, and he had such compassion for questioners. His Jesus was the one I recognized from my own sojourns: the advocate for the poor, for justice, but also the koan-creator, the fully human, hot-blooded realist, the one who told Martha that Mary had the better part. The one who recommended we all consider the lilies of the field and stop our ceaseless useless worrying.
On our way up to church a few months later, on a warm May morning, Tom said, “I hope someday we get married in this church.” A year later we did. Eighteen months after that, we baptized our daughter, and a couple of years after that, our son.
We laughed our heads off there as charity auctioneers. I played new songs as preludes and offertories, and my sister Katryna and I performed there every year. My parents came up and worshiped with us. Week after week our hearts were broken open by the honesty of the preaching and the sincerity of the congregation’s response.
Keeping things in perspective
When I heard the news, I dropped the phone and keened as if someone had died. As our family headed to the scene, our 3-year-old daughter piped up: “I can be a good helping builder of the new church. But tell them to make it pink next time. That’s prettier than white.”
We drove past the little Church Road and saw the remains. The very front of the church was still standing, blackened and broken. So much of what we take for granted as eternal really isn’t. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha says, “Anyone who understands impermanence ceases to be contentious.” I wouldn’t say I’m there yet (I can be plenty contentious), but these lessons in impermanence help. And anyway, how do I know something better isn’t around the corner?
Steve came striding towards us, his arms open. We hugged, and he looked me in the eye. “This is horrid. And we will rebuild.” As we entered the parish house building down the road, he said to Hal, who was in charge of the collection box, “We’re doing that second basket for Haiti. Because we have to keep things in perspective here, people. We’ve lost practically nothing. They’ve lost everything.”
And looking around the room, it was obvious that this was true. Here was my church. The room was packed to the rafters with old friends, newcomers, supporters, members of other churches. John Eisenhaur brought another quilt. “It has tulips on it,” he said, unfolding it at the front of the room, “which seems appropriate.”
What had we lost? Not a soul had died. No one had even been injured. We weren’t even homeless; the Parish house was plenty big to contain us. And it has a bathroom.
I know we will rebuild. But we all need a moment — or many — to grieve what we’ve lost. We will never again sit on the funky, weird throne-like chairs that stood in the corner where Tom and I sat during our wedding ceremony. I will never look out that window at the falling snow. I will never sit in that pew. The atoms will reorganize differently. The light will shine in the new building in a new way. It will not have the same 170-year-old smell. And we will never see the quilt again.
The energy of love
But, as 12-year-old Jacob said, “Energy can’t be burned up in a fire.” The love we have, the faith, the memories, the emotions, the good will, the bits of poetry and theology and philosophy, the hugs, the songs, the communion — those remain.
And how we love to be of service when there is a tragedy! I believe the human heart yearns for these opportunities to be useful. So Jacob is right; energy cannot be destroyed, it can only shift around, and the energy in that church came right back to all of us in a fervor to rebuild. The energy of the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami in Japan comes back in a longing in our hearts to help, to give, to go there, to be of service.
As I’ve mentioned, our church didn’t have a bathroom. In order to grow, we kind of need a bathroom, more facilities for kids and families, a bigger parking lot, more space period. But no one wanted to touch that little antique church nestled so perfectly and eternally in the hills. It was, in a way, a sacred cow. We’re not an ambitious congregation. We want to raise money for the local Food Pantry. We want to listen to our wise preacher, meet in small groups to talk about the book of Genesis, nurture our men so they don’t become bullies, meet for soup potlucks and meditation.
And maybe we’re meant to do more. I have no idea what that looks like, but when a building goes up in flames the way ours did, it certainly raises the question, to paraphrase Rumi (who is oft quoted in this town of West Cummington), of whether we’ve been “cleared out for some new delight.”
So if this is God’s way of shaking us up, pushing us to serve in a bigger way, I will do my best to grieve our loss, raise money for the new building, advocate for pink clapboards (maybe just one, hidden in the back), do a concert, love my congregation, support my pastor and try as hard as I can to embrace impermanence and not be contentious with What Is.
Thank you, little jewel of a church. Requiescat in pace.