It's sad when a place of worship burns, regardless of what started the fire. Yes, it's just a building, and the people in the congregation are the actual church, but the building is a sacred place, and its people have a tragic loss.
Church leaders try to be practical and rational as they start the congregation's recovery, contacting the institution's insurers, discussing where to hold services, figuring out what work the congregation can continue while it seeks new quarters. But they, along with the other members of the church, also have spiritual reactions. A house of worship pulls at the heart.
How could this happen to a place of God, a believer might ask. Remember, though it might be dedicated to a higher power, the building was constructed by people, and prayer often isn't enough to hold things together. The "act of God" is a legal and insurance term, not so much a religious one; it says that weather or other mostly natural conditions caused damage. A congregation might feel singled out, in a way, because of the destruction, but in the recent cold weather other churches suffered water damage from burst pipes, and people in their homes experience many of the same catastrophes, so there are partners in misery as well as helpers for recovery, and compassion is abundant.
Richard's Temple of Deliverance Church of God in Christ at 2013 Lawrence Ave., St. Mark Baptist Church at 1419 N. Detroit Ave., and the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo at 25877 Scheider Rd., Perrysburg, all burned. St. Mark's caught fire Jan. 3, on a cold day. Smoke from the steeple was seen Jan. 4 at Richard's Temple. On Sept. 30, 2012, a man intentionally set a fire at the Islamic Center; he is in prison now. The causes of the fires in the two Christian churches are being investigated.
Whether the fires happened from "benign neglect" (when needed maintenance of a building is set aside or postponed, possibly because of expenses or other plans) or demands on an old furnace or boiler; or a careless intruder made use of a building that is idle and empty for parts of the week; or someone has a grudge against religion and committed arson, the congregations now have to change their church ways. The Islamic Center finally moved back in and held a celebratory banquet Dec. 15--and that was delayed a day because of weather. St. Mark met at the University of Toledo's Driscoll Alumni Center Sunday and did its best to have its regular worship as an indicator that its church work continues. The pastor of Richard's Temple, Charles Evans, did not return a call asking for comment.
A church is a community center that is oriented in spirit, regardless of the religion practiced inside its doors. What can a community do to help? The Islamic Center's school met at Owens Community College's Arrowhead campus until it could get back into the building. St. Mark might continue to have worship at the University of Toledo Driscoll Alumni Center while it figures out next steps; a sign in the lot next door to St. Mark announced plans for a new church building, but Pastor I.J. Johnson said the sign was a type of envisioning for the church to continue after his copastor, his son the Rev. Curly Johnson, would become senior pastor. Title to the lot was not clear, he said.
Flames are important to many faiths, and central to religious practice. A person might light a votive candle while praying. Or burning incense is part of a ceremony. There's the "burning bowl" practice some hold with a new year in which congregants might write down regrets of the past year or hopes for the next and burn them in a ritual. And scriptures of many religions contain stories in which fire is tied to faith. Fire is part of life, one of the four classic elements along with earth, air, and water. Fire is both dangerous and comforting, and humans' command of it always carries risk.
May the churches soon have their own sanctuaries and, like the Islamic Center, make a very good use of fire: preparing a meal of celebration for being home again.