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After Middle Church fire, advice from houses of worship that have survived disaster

‘Document everything. Cross every T. Dot every I,’ says an African Methodist Episcopal pastor whose Tennessee church building was hit by a tornado.

Firefighters work to extinguish the fire erupted from a building next to the Middle Collegiate Church on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020 in New York. The historic 19th century church in lower Manhattan was gutted by a massive fire early after a fire spread from a five-story vacant building behind the church at about 5 a.m. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

(RNS) — The fire that destroyed Middle Collegiate Church’s historic building in New York City began in the dark of an early Saturday morning (Dec. 5). By midday, as prayers, thoughts and offers of help poured in, the church’s leaders began the work of keeping their congregation together — and laying the groundwork to rebuild.

Zoom meetings were set up at which members of the church could mourn collectively. A multicultural children’s book fair went forward, as did the scheduled online worship service for the second Sunday of Advent — at which 25 people joined as new members.

By Sunday evening they also had created a special link for people to use to support the “rising” of a new edifice.

Gianfranco Grande. Photo courtesy of Partners for Sacred Places

“People have to act fast,” said Gianfranco Grande, executive vice president of Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit that helps redesign and preserve houses of worship. “And if they don’t, the emotion that is created by the news fades away. Our society tends to be very easily distracted nowadays for many, many reasons and especially in this particular time with the pandemic.”


RELATED: Historic Middle Collegiate Church in New York City destroyed in six-alarm fire

Besides donations from its members, Middle Collegiate has received $20,000 from a Facebook fundraiser set up by the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a friend of its pastor, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis. (Blackmon, a United Church of Christ pastor in Missouri, said the money was pledged in what she called “the resurrection number” of three days.) All told, the church raised $200,000 in a week.

“I can’t get through my inbox for all the love that has been shown to us,” Lewis said in an interview Friday with Religion News Service, six days after her role as a senior minister changed dramatically.

Middle Collegiate, known also simply as Middle Church, moved into its location in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood in 1892.  The neo-Gothic sanctuary boasted century-old Tiffany stained-glass windows and a state-of-the-art digital organ built in 2008.

“We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned,” Lewis said in a statement on the day of the fire.

“We know that we are the church without a facility but we’d really like to have one,” Lewis said almost a week later with a slight laugh. The site meant a lot to her personally as well as professionally. “I got married in that space in 2005. That’s my space that burned down. The baptisms, the celebrations, the giant puppets, the dance, that special King Day service, Easter. All of that stuff happens in a space and so we do want to have a space again.”

Leaders of other churches that have had structural losses have some recommendations for Lewis and her flock.

Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Saba during its rebuilding project. Photo courtesy of Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Eastern America

The Rev. Djokan Majstorovic was the dean of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Saba — a mile and a half away from Middle Collegiate — when it suffered a destructive fire in 2016.

The Rev. Djokan Majstorovic, former dean of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Saba. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Djokan Majstorovic

“Most of all is to keep the community together,” he said, remembering how he urged congregants to pray to God for strength and comfort as they began to accept the reality of their situation.

New roofing and floor beams have been placed at the cathedral, according to a statement on the website of its diocese, but St. Saba’s congregation continues to meet nearby at St. Eleftherios Greek Orthodox Church, which had suffered its own fire in 1973.

Majstorovic said turning to other prominent New York congregations that had experienced fires, such as the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine and Central Synagogue, helped him when the crisis was still fresh. “It was very nice visiting those people because they were very compassionate, first of all, and very encouraging and very helpful to tell us where to go, who to contact, to whom to talk and how to proceed,” he said.

Lewis said houses of worship in the city have offered their spaces as meeting places and she’s considering which ones to partner with to provide space for future classical music concerts.


RELATED: Gospel Fans Mourn Loss of Historic Chicago Church


Left: Historical photograph of Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago. Right: Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 2020. Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, Control number il0127, and of Pilgrim Baptist Church

Pilgrim Baptist Church, a Chicago landmark where the late Thomas A. Dorsey created traditional Black gospel music and performed with such notable voices as Mahalia Jackson, suffered a devastating fire in 2006 and is now meeting in its renovated community center across the street.

Cynthia M. Jones, chair of the Pilgrim Baptist’s trustee board, said leaders of houses of worship need to be strategic in their fundraising appeals. “A lot of people won’t give to a church, but they will give to a historic building, so how you capture that is very important,” said Jones, who said fundraising began in 2017 and has featured concerts with gospel artists. “I learned that after about a year and a half. I always refer to a sacred space or sacred site.”

Jones’ church plans to replace its original site with the National Museum of Gospel Music, which Jones hopes will open in 2023.

The museum will display sheet music salvaged from the fire as well as timber beams that were untouched by flames.

“By putting the national gospel museum there, it’s going to bring breadth to that community,” said Jones, who said visitors from around the globe often stop at the site to take photos and put hands on remaining bricks.

St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Lisa Hammonds

St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church, a Nashville, Tennessee, congregation that dates to the 1800s, is recovering from a tornado that hit in March. 

The Rev. Lisa Hammonds, it pastor, said clergy should publicly grieve their loss to help give their congregants permission to mourn as well. But she said they also have to cope with the “taxing and daunting” work of dealing with government, disaster relief and insurance officials.

“I found it helpful very early on to get a notepad and it turned into a binder and I now call it the ‘church Bible,’” said Hammonds. “Document everything. Cross every T. Dot every I.”

Hammonds, whose congregation is working with a consultant in a “revisioning process” before it starts a rebuilding capital campaign, said her church has found ways to continue ministry without its 61-year-old building. It has maintained a “blessing box” on the now-leveled site where the church building stood and people in the neighborhood can continue to leave or take what they need among donated nonperishable food, diapers and feminine hygiene products.

The church, which has met virtually except for the two weeks after the fire, also has found new ways to serve its community remotely. As a partner with the local United Way, it has paid more than $400,000 to landlords and mortgage and utility companies for county applicants who were behind on their bills.


RELATED: New York church to devote $200,000 to ‘reparations’ with housing help, anti-racism training


Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest

Grande said rebuilding churches should look to the immediate community but also worldwide. He cited Chicago’s Shrine of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, which his organization advised after its structure burned. It raised millions from foundations and from friends of the priest outside the city, as well as congregation members.

“This is the solution for situations like that,” he said. “Notre Dame in Paris — same thing.
It’s not that the almost billion dollars came from the Catholic Church. It came from people all over the world.”

Lewis said global recognition of her church’s need for assistance to rebuild has been reassuring.

“We are not just an East Village church; we belong to the nation, and in some places around the globe, as a progressive, loving, multi-all-the-things place,” she said. “And the love that people are showing us for being who we are is so heartwarming.”