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Sabbatical is time to listen to post-fire grief

Following recovery from a March 2016 fire at St. Paul’s UCC in Seattle, its pastor Tim Devine chose to focus a month-long sabbatical in June 2017 visiting eight UCC congregations that had experienced a building fire.

Tim Devine speaks on his church’s experience with a fire.

In the aftermath of the fire at St. Paul’s, some of the pastors from those churches who were his friends told him he would be “exhausted, emotional and even forgetful at times” from the trauma of the event.

They also told him there would be unexpected “grace-filled moments.”

Now Tim has captured their experiences and advice in a paper he wrote on his visits, “Re-Formed by Fire.’

He shared what he learned from visiting or interviewing pastors and members at Pilgrim/New Pilgrims Community UCC in Anacortes, First and St. Stephen’s UCC in Baltimore, First Congregational UCC of Berkeley, Memorial Congregational UCC at Cannon Ball, N.D., on the Standing Rock Reservation, two churches in Wisconsin—Plymouth UCC of Eau Claire and Redeemer UCC of Sussex—and First Congregational UCC in Vancouver, Wa.

“There were two elements: I wanted to listen to stories. When I did, I realized how significant it was just to hear the stories,” he said.

His hope was to learn from the shared experiences.

In the “postlude” of the paper, Tim wrote that by sharing their experiences, pastors and members countered their feelings of isolation and being overwhelmed by the details of recovery.

Circumstances of the fires and their effects varied.  Some churches burned to the ground.  Some had smoke damage. Some could continue to worship in their buildings.  Others were welcomed by nearby churches to use space while building repairs or rebuilding was underway.

In all cases, the fires were traumatic events for the congregations and pastors.

“In insurance language, ‘acts of God,’ can make for complicated feelings,” Tim said.

A lightning strike in Eau Claire, a prairie fire at Cannon Ball on a direct line to the building raised theological questions for some, he said. Arson fires in Anacortes and Vancouver raised deeper levels of anger and concern about targeting persecution.

“Seeing the church burn from near or far, and even the lingering post-fire smell can take a long time to fade and may need to be dealt with directly,” Tim said. “The personal sadness for pastors and staff who lost everything or many things in their offices was enormous.”

The next concern was the complications of insurance coverage. Tim said all would have benefitted from knowing more about their policies, such as Cannon Ball having no property insurance because of an association minister’s decision, the lack of insurance for personal items of the sexton’s family in the Berkeley fire, and having coverage for only half of what was needed to rebuild in Sussex. 

“All found the process slow.  Baltimore hired an attorney, and Sussex changed carriers, Tim added.

Another common concern was having documentation and inventory of what was lost for making a claim.  In Eau Claire, computer files were backed up on site, so the fire claimed all the information. 

Tim said grief resurfaced,so the times of returning to the sanctuary or a new worship space were emotional.

“For some, the fire was an opportunity. St. Paul’s added renovations and building security upgrades useful for a building heavily used by outside groups without staff present,” he said. “Berkeley is leaning toward affordable housing, and selling a parking lot and another building to use the space for much needed low-income housing.”

Dynamics related to pastoral leadership also varied. 

“Pastors with long, settled leadership stayed to see the process through.  For two, the fire was early in their ministry and re-defined their vision. In Cannon Ball, church life is on hold, but the pastor is available.  In Anacortes, the pastor moved,” he said.

Tim also found that as in any time of loss or grief, there is much support, with “surprises about who is present and who is silent.”

He found it helpful to have a list of how people can help.

“These experiences also raised theological questions:  Why us? Where does God live? What constitutes a church ‘home’? Is the relationship to the building or to the people?” Tim said.  “The predominant answer was a realization that the connections were to the people, but there was a hunger to reconnect with the physical space in periods of reconstruction and recovery.”

Another observation was that new people who come after the fire have no experience of that time, so it’s important to let go of the public “remember when” statements if they are to be integrated into the church., he said.

Tim said the question, “Why us?” is better framed as “Why not us?”

“God does not direct these actions to punish or make a point.  God does not intercede, but God accompanies us on the journey.  We are offered support and presence and not left alone.   There are times for silence, lament, listening, decisions, hard work and celebration.  Each story is unique,” Tim said.

“We are told that contemporary church life in the UCC needs to be about transformation,” he said.

“So the question becomes, “Now that it is us, but what do we learn from this experience and how will we move forward incorporating the lessons learned?” he said.

Tim suggests taking a cue from the prophet Isaiah at a time of suffering or loss and to trust that God is “about to do a new thing.”

For information, call 206-783-6733 or access report at - click Fire Recovery.


Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ News © November-December 2017


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