There’s no good time to lose a church building to fire, but the middle of a global pandemic seems like an especially awful time to members of Middle Collegiate Church in New York.
“When you get to the block and you see your church going up in flames, it really is an out-of-body experience. It’s just devastating and gut-wrenchingly awful,” said Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, an executive minister at Middle Church and the first staff member to arrive at the century old, Gothic-Revival structure as it burned down Dec. 5.
The church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America but has Baptist ties through staff and other relationships. Hambrick Ashcraft is a graduate of Samford University and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond and is newly elected to the Baptist News Global board of directors.
“It’s so hard for anyone’s church to burn down, but it’s especially hard for your church to burn down in a global pandemic,” she said.
Partly, that’s because precautions against COVID-19 prevent members and friends from gathering physically to grieve, or for ministers to meet in person to plan the next steps of recovery, she explained. “It creates an extra level of stress because there is nowhere to meet indoors. We’re not comfortable meeting in coffee shops, so we meet outside in the cold.”
The timing of the blaze has been another emotionally complicating factor, Hambrick Ashcraft said. “There is this triple reality that on top of the pandemic we were at the beginning of Advent, a time of waiting and anticipation of the gifts that the darkness brings — and then this.”
But out of the smoking rubble signs of hope quickly emerged, she added. “Hours after the sanctuary burned to the ground, we had a great (online) church service on Sunday. We were set up and ready to do it.”
Christmas services went ahead as planned, also virtually, while musical and artistic benefits were being staged to raise funds for the church and contributions began arriving from around the world.
“We are living into this immense grief and also the reality that God is right here crying with us,” Hambrick Ashcraft said.
The experience will be etched deeply into the story of the Middle Church community, said Darrell Hamilton II, pastor for formation and outreach at First Baptist Church of Jamaica Plain, Mass., and a soon-to-be staff minister at Middle Church.
“Fires like these, you never get over them. This is now a part of the legacy and history and overall story of Middle Church,” said Hamilton, who shortly before the fire had been called as executive pastor for operations and resource development at Middle Church. “But it’s not just the fire itself, it’s also where the church goes from here that’s part of the story.”
He knows this personally because of his tenure at the Jamaica Plain church. That church has been hit by fire three times, most recently in 2005. While all three fires happened before Hamilton arrived on staff, the ongoing effect of the fire on the congregation became evident to him.
Those blazes infused First Baptist of Jamaica Plain with a spirit of reliance and perseverance that has seen it through other challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, Hamilton said. “Those fires formed the church’s DNA into a way of doing ministry that values innovation, flexibility, change and transformation to respond to evolving needs.”
Hamilton added that he was similarly formed by that DNA as the church provided his first full-time ministerial position. “You come to a church right out of seminary with all types of ideas of what ministry is and how it should look. But being in a space like this has really forced me to evolve and be a lot more open to how the Spirit might be moving in any given moment.”
The First Baptist fires also provided clergy and lay people opportunities to model for the wider community how to respond to difficulty while remaining in service. And that’s a message Middle Church Senior Pastor Jacqueline Lewis already is spreading, he noted.
“She has been out there saying no fire can stop revolutionary love. That community is already on that journey of showing what revolutionary love looks like and how to actualize it in the present, regardless of the circumstances,” Hamilton said.
“Revolutionary love and justice” is a motto that communicates the Middle Church tenet that love demands care and courageous action about what happens in the public square, Hambrick Ashcraft explained.
It means the fire has not stopped the church’s protest and advocacy efforts at City Hall, in Congress or the PTA in support of racial, gender, LGBTQ, economic and environmental causes.
“We have not been slowed,” she said. “And the big story line for me is that in the midst of deep grief there is a deep understanding that neither God nor the church are contained in a building.”
Hambrick Ashcraft credited Lewis’ vision for a robust digital church presence — five years before COVID — that has enabled Middle Church not only to be prepared for holiday services after the fire, but also to provide a space for communal grieving in the hours immediately after the blaze.
“The night of the fire we had an open Zoom meeting for people to grieve,” she said. “There were 500 who got in but there were about another 2,000 trying to get in. We spent 2 ½ hours just crying and telling stories.”
A few days later, the congregation’s digital minister was ordained in front of the charred remains of the church amid running generators and construction tape. It was a sign of the commitment to sharing revolutionary love and justice in online spaces, she said.
She recalls another moment when she saw the church’s values lived out. It was in the early morning of Dec. 5 as Hambrick Ashcraft stood among working firefighters, media members and onlookers as her church was gutted. Arriving in haste, she had come without a coat.
“I was freezing. I’m not a good cold-weather person,” she explained.
Then a church member arrived. “They showed up with coffee. I said, ‘This is all the God I need today. To me, that was incarnational ministry in that moment.”