A six-alarm fire destroyed the historic building of Middle Collegiate Church in New York City on Saturday, Dec. 5.
The church, affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America, has several Baptist connections through staff and relationships, and its senior pastor, Jacqui Lewis, is well-known among progressive Baptists. The church’s executive minister, Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, previously worked with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and is a newly elected board member for Baptist News Global.
Middle Collegiate Church is located at East 7th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village. The fire reportedly started shortly before 5 a.m. in an adjacent structure that is unoccupied and quickly spread. Fire Department officials said they arrived at the scene within 3 minutes of the first alarm.
More than 200 firefighters from 44 units battled the blaze.
“We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned,” Lewis said in a statement posted to the church’s website. “And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love. We thank God that there has been no loss of life.”
She added: “We know that God does not cause these kinds of tragedies but is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and prayers of loved ones. We’ve been worshiping and doing our ministry in digital spaces since March, and that’s what we’ll be doing tomorrow. We pray for the first responders. We pray for our neighbors who are also affected by this fire. And we covet your prayers as we grieve.”
The church scheduled a virtual vigil to be held online at 7 p.m. Eastern Time Sunday, Dec. 6.
Congregants and friends of the church took to social media to mourn the loss of the structure but also to praise the congregation for its witness.
Darren Edward Johnston, who described Middle Church as his “spiritual home,” posted an appeal on Facebook showing a photo of a burned-out passageway inside the building. He explained: “That doorway led to our sanctuary. I’ll never forget seeing this devastation, but trust me when I tell you that a building burnt down, but this church is still up. … During the AIDS crisis, folks with HIV/AIDS found a place in Middle where folks would not only accept them, but hug them, care for them and let them know God loved them. During our national reckoning with race these last few years, we donned hoodies after the death of Trayvon Martin, we marched in the streets, we died-in at government buildings and our own sanctuary … . When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we immediately pivoted to producing online worship and made sure that nearly 10% of our budget went to rent relief and funding #BlackLivesMatter initiatives.”
On the day of the fire, “this community showed up, loved each other, prayed, sang on the streets, and made sure that all of our surrounding neighbors were cared for,” he added. “A building burnt down, but this church is still up.”
Ashcraft, who said she was unable to respond to all the calls and texts and messages after the fire, gave a report on Facebook. She posted a video of the last time the congregation met in-person in the sanctuary, which was March 15.
“We have not worshiped in there since. Not once. Not with 10 of us masked and distanced. Because that’s not how you church. Not until all are welcome,” she explained.
That fact is a testimony to who the church has been and will be, Ashcraft added. “I am heartbroken. Devastated. And I know God is too. Someone yelled to me as I was giving a report, ‘What will happen to the church?!’
“Look around!” I said. THIS is the church. … This is the church. We cry hard. We grieve hard. We believe. We reimagine. And we are not bound by walls.”
Middle Collegiate Church is the oldest of five congregations that make up the Collegiate Churches of New York. “Collegiate” is Old English for “collegial.” Organized in 1628, the Collegiate Churches of New York is the oldest continuously active church and the oldest corporation in North America, established by royal charter from King William III of England in 1696. The other well-known congregation among the group is Marble Collegiate Church, located in central Manhattan near the Empire State Building.
Middle Church’s first building was erected in 1729. A second sanctuary was built at another location in 1839. The current sanctuary at 7th Street and 2nd Avenue was built in 1892 and has been updated several times. The sanctuary destroyed by fire included a collection of more than a dozen Tiffany windows, and the church’s social hall included a large Tiffany skylight dome.
The church’s bell tower houses New York’s Liberty Bell, which rang in the birth of the country on July 9, 1776, and has rung for the inauguration and death of every American president. It also rings during momentous New York City events, including remembering the attacks on 9/11.
The Collegiate churches have been deeply involved in the reparations movement, because of their deep historical connection to the region. When Dutch settlers came to modern-day Manhattan and met the Lenape people living there, they bought their land for the equivalent of about $24. The year was 1626.
The Collegiate churches have more recently apologized to the descendants of the Lenape people, and a Reparations Task Force is now working “to better understand our history, so we can figure out the most just ways to move forward,” a statement on Middle Church’s website says.