HAZEL DELL — The pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ had a strong message for her flock Sunday morning.
“They can burn us down, but they cannot burn us out,” the Rev. Jennifer Brownell said to cheers from the nearly 200 people in attendance.
It was true. The congregation carried on, worshipping alongside an enthusiastic choir, listening intently to the sermon, singing hymns, partaking in communion and praying for solace — all while gathered under a tent on church property. Just up the hill, the church’s towering steeple and its sanctuary remained charred and ruined, the result of a suspected arson early Wednesday morning.
“It is so good to gather here, to mourn and to sing and to pray,” Brownell said. She requested that members of the media not take photographs of the service.
As church members struggled with the question of why the fire took place, Brownell’s sermon dismissed the idea that God causes tragedies to punish people or make them stronger.
“God does not go around this world with his finger on the trigger … or a gas can,” she said.
However, Brownell said, God can take a random, tragic act and create good from it.
Brownell said that on the day of the fire, a pastor from another local church stopped by. In the past, the two congregations had been on opposite sides of the same-sex marriage debate; Brownell’s church supported and advocated for gay marriage while his church fought against it.
But on Wednesday, that pastor asked Brownell if he could pray with her. He put his arms around her and they reached out to God, she said through tears.
“Did God make a fire so I could pray with an enemy in the parking lot? Oh, no,” she said, but the Holy Spirit did create some good in the wake of the fire.
Two church fires in two days
Members of the Hazel Dell church weren’t alone in their grief.
On Thursday, fire struck the Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene in the Salmon Creek area, and police are investigating the two church fires as connected arsons. At Liberty Bible, a sprinkler system quickly doused the flames, which damaged the preschool and a few other rooms. Late last week, the church said it planned to go ahead with a worship service in its building Sunday morning for its 500 to 600 members.
In a message posted on Liberty Bible’s website Friday, Pastor Larry Rounsley said the congregation will not have full use of its church for some time.
But, he added: “No one was hurt and we will come out of this more determined than before.”
Brownell urged members of her church in Hazel Dell to raise their voices and fight fire with the fire of the Holy Spirit.
“The fires of destruction meet the fire of the Holy Spirit, and they are extinguished,” she said.
To close the worship service, members sang the hymn “We Shall Overcome,” most of them clasping hands.
“We are not afraid today,” they sang. “God will see us through.”
On the next two Sundays, June 5 and 12, the First Congregational members will meet again under the tent on church grounds at 10 a.m. After that, they plan to move temporarily to Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform Jewish facility on Northeast 199th Street. Kol Ami once shared a space at the First Congregational United Church of Christ before building its own place of worship.
After the service on Sunday, John and MaryEllis Hannon surveyed the scene. The church was cordoned off by a chain-link fence, and parts of the building were boarded up. The Hannons have attended First Congregational for 11 years.
“It’s a heartbreaking thing to go through,” MaryEllis Hannon said.
“It’s really tough this morning,” John Hannon added.
He expressed gratitude, though, that Kol Ami would take them in.
“It’s nice to see that we can go back and share the other space,” he said.