LORAIN — The image of the burned-out church nearby was unsettling.
A place of worship is supposed to be sacred ground, a safe haven from the ills of the world. Yet, Thursday the most non-discriminating force on the planet — fire — consumed the church building of First Evangelical Lutheran Church.
On Sunday, congregants, community members and friends of faith responded with a message they let ascend to the heavens in an open-air service in a field across the street from the church: The fire has not consumed our faith.
The nearly two-hour service was thrown together in the rawest moments after the fire ripped through the 90-year-old building.
Even before fire officials could tell church leaders why their house of worship burned — the Lorain Fire Department, state Fire Marshal’s Office and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are looking into a cause — it was decided that meeting as close to home as possible as soon as possible was needed to get the healing process started.
“I am not usually a public weeper, but I may weep today,” the Rev. Jimmy Madsen said. “This is a lament. We are lamenting, and that is perfectly fine.”
But when the grieving is over, the Rev. Abraham D. Allende, newly elected bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, said God will be there as always. His message was one of hope.
“It is not those walls that embrace you,” he said. “It is rather God’s tender mercy.”
Still, there were tears Sunday — wails from church mothers of yesteryear who remember gazing at the stained glass windows in the sanctuary when they were children, and fathers who know what it's like to nervously walk their daughters down the sanctuary aisle.
“I know today many of us are in grief, many of us are sorrowful,” Allende said. “But it’s still a wonderful thing when people of God gather together to pray and worship.”
The word “fire” appears in the Bible about 550 times, from its first reference in Genesis to a final mention in Revelation.
But for this service, so soon after fire gutted the building, destroying the church’s nearly $1 million irreplaceable John Brombaugh Opus 4 organ and sending numerous community outreach programs into a tailspin, it was from Isaiah 43:2, King James version, that brought much-needed solace:
“When thou passest through the waters, I will be thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.”
Recovery from the fire will not be easy — Madsen minced no words as he spoke of the unimaginable pain he knows so many are feeling after losing the anchor that held so many faithful together. Instead, he asked his members and those who were not but felt a kinship to the church to think not to what was lost Thursday morning, but of what still remains.
“I was most struck on Thursday with the people from the neighborhood who kept coming,” he said. “They are not members, but cried with us, slipped me pieces of paper with their phone numbers and, more importantly, told me they would be there to help in any way they can. That says to me that we have been doing our mission.”
And that is what will continue at First Evangelical Lutheran despite the fire.
The food pantry, which last month saw its highest participation at 350 families, will be up and running by Sept.11.
Dan Erwine, program director, said the fire destroyed thousands of pounds of food, seven freezers and three refrigerators, but the church is giving out food, even if it has to rent a truck and set up shop in the parking lot.
“We’re going to still do it. It’s that simple for us,” he said.
Likewise, 10 a.m. to noon Wednesday, Sue Perry, coordinator of the church’s Front Door Program, said she will be at the church to hand out pamphlets to those in need so they know where they can go for help in the short while the program is not operating.
“I know I have at least 12 appointments for that day and most of who we see is by walk in,” she said. “I can’t get to our checkbook, our resources, our records, but I can direct them to someplace else.”
The work with Family Promise of Lorain County to house the homeless will continue. An Avon church will house families during the week First Evangelical Lutheran was scheduled, but the Lorain church will do all of the staffing and cooking.
And a block party scheduled for Sunday will take place as planned.
“It’s a gift to the community, Madsen said.
He seems to have taken the fire in stride, seeing it as an opportunity to re-emerge as a stronger church capable of reaching people in new ways.
“(Saturday) I did a funeral in a Moose lodge,” he said with a laugh. “It’s the first time I did a funeral with a moose over my head and the overflow sat at a bar.”