The call came in at 5:41. Our friend who is a Delaware State Trooper was on the other line.
“Mary Ann, this is Andrea. Has anyone called you about anything going on up at your church?”
It was still dark outside. My head was fuzzy. “Our Church?”
“Yes. I just came by and it appears that your church is on fire. The firemen are on the scene. Initially I thought there was an accident, but I did see smoke.”
“No, no one has called.” I felt like this just wasn’t true. Who would burn our church? We’ve had break-ins over the years, some petty vandalism, graffiti (that didn’t use Sunday school words) spray painted on the outside, but these incidents were few and far between. Who would burn our church?
“Well, I’m going to turn around and go back,” she said. “I’ll see what’s going on and I will call you back”
I hung up the phone and went to talk to Daniel. His first response was to get ready to go up to the church, calling the integral people on the way. I started my morning routines, getting ladies up and showered and fed. My busy hands were on automatic, but my heart was in turmoil.
“What could have happened? We had carry-in on Sunday. I wonder if something got left on? Oven? Coffee Pot, Candle? Oh, Lord Jesus! Please. May this fire not be the result of any of our member’s negligence. That would be a burden too hard for anyone to bear. Please, Lord Jesus.
Andrea called back to verify that there was, indeed a fire.
“Do they know what started it?” I asked.
“They are waiting on the fire marshal,” she replied reassuringly. “They will investigate and I’m sure you will have an answer.”
It wasn’t long until Daniel called. The fire marshal was there and had a conversation with him. It seems that there were three churches in the immediate area that had fires within about three hours.
“We can’t know for sure,” Daniel told me, “but it would certainly point to the fact that it was arson.”
I was so relieved to know that this fire wasn’t from negligence on anyone’s part. I know that may sound really immaterial, but one of the things that I have found in these days following this cataclysmic event is that our minds cling to small comforts and somehow, in the greater scheme of things, those small things add up to a bigger, better picture of a God that has our good in mind.
As the story unfolded, we have certainly had ample reason to rejoice. Apparently, a passerby noticed the flames through a church window and called 911. The local fire company had just gotten back from one of the other churches, and were still suited up — they were at the church within five minutes. When they got there, the first thing they noticed was that both entry doors were propped open. The firemen found a critical situation in the auditorium of our church. A pile of hymnbooks, bibles and Sunday school papers as well as some blankets, bedding, and costumes were put under a bench that had been torn off the floor and the whole thing had been used to ignite a bonfire. The church had been vandalized, with every single cupboard and drawer gone through and the doors to the classrooms left open. The firemen said that we were only five to seven minutes from what they call the “flash point.” This is where everything is so hot that it bursts into flame. The clock on the wall was melted to nothing. The plastic speakers in the ceiling had dropped to the floor in a blob of melted plastic. The flowers on the Christmas wreaths and the tinsel on the angel wings, all up in the one classroom where we stored the costumes, were melted. If the fireman had been just a little bit later, we would have lost the whole thing. As it is, though there is terrible damage to so much of the inside, the structure is sound.
One of the biggest blessings has been a gift that we were mostly unaware of until this all came down. Some years ago, J.R. Campbell, as a trustee of our church, had gone over our insurance policy with a fine-toothed comb. We couldn’t have had better coverage. When J.R. passed away earlier this year, we had no way of knowing how his foresight and expertise would bless our little church. It has been so comforting to us, knowing that we don’t have to clean up that terrible mess. Knowing that all the contents were covered, all the cleanup, all the repairs. Everything to return it to its pre-fire condition. This blessing has been beyond our expectations, and we are so grateful.
“Ah, J.R.!!! What I wouldn’t give to see you get into this situation with your knowledge and ability to get what is needed, when it is needed. If you are watching somewhere, I hope you know how much of a blessing you’ve been to us . . .”
The ensuing days have been so incredible. It feels like the slashes across my heart have been filled with healing and love on the part of the greater family of God and our local communities. People have literally come out of the woodwork to pray for us, to offer help, to comfort and encourage and even commiserate. I cannot begin to tell you what is in my heart tonight. So, so much good has come out of this tragedy already. I can only imagine what God has for us in the coming weeks and months.
I know this post has been a long time coming. I am still processing so much. I hope that those of you who are reading it will continue to pray for us, to speak encouraging words. We are resourceful and accustomed to working hard. We want to stay together. I won’t pretend that this has been easy, but I hope you understand when I say that it has been GOOD. And it will be GOOD. We have so much to look forward to.
And once again, my heart gives grateful praise.