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From blueprints to Bibles, a resurrection for Hazel Dell church

Pastor, church eager for return home, return to normalcy after rebuilding in wake of 2016 arson

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
8 Photos
A contractor working at Vancouver United Church of Christ prepares to install new windows on July 19. The church’s west steeple was damaged by fire in May 2016.
A contractor working at Vancouver United Church of Christ prepares to install new windows on July 19. The church’s west steeple was damaged by fire in May 2016. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A core tenet of Christianity is resurrection and new life, the “understanding that some things have to die so new things can be born,” the Rev. Jennifer Brownell said.

The theme of resurrection has held steady at Vancouver United Church of Christ, which was damaged by arson more than two years ago, leaving its followers without a home.

The congregation had to grieve over the fact that its worship space would never be what it used to be, but new life is being breathed into the Hazel Dell church.

“I have a much more lived experience of resurrection than I ever have before. I just feel like that part of my faith that I’ve always taken really seriously is now so much deeper, so much more strong and powerful,” Brownell said.

While the church, also known as First Congregational United Church of Christ, doesn’t have a firm date on when remodeling work will wrap up, there is a Sept. 23 building dedication. Brownell said the church wants to invite people who have driven by and are curious about the construction work.

If You Go

 What: Vancouver United Church of Christ building dedication. There will be a ceremony and reception with live music.

 When: 4 p.m. Sept. 23.

 Where: 1220 N.E. 68th St., Vancouver.

It’s also a chance to say thanks to the organizations that have supported the church since the fire.

Gratitude is another theme that’s emerged throughout this process, Brownell said — and something that she plans to preach about once she’s able to do Sunday services inside.

“That’s the big lesson that comes out of this for all of us,” she said.

Unique building

The boat-shaped sanctuary originally built in 1961 basically has no straight walls, making it an architectural challenge to reconstruct. The fire was discovered early in the morning on May 25, 2016, on the exterior of the sanctuary, and the west steeple essentially acted as a chimney. It was the first of three local church arsons that month.

Last fall, investigators with the Clark County Fire Marshal’s Office released surveillance footage of a suspect, but none of the leads generated by that panned out, said Deputy Fire Marshal Susan Anderson.

“All three of those cases remain unsolved,” she said.

Brownell said insurance paid nearly $5 million to return the building to its original state. Through various fundraisers and donations from members, the church was able to reimagine the building and add features that made the space better than it was before.

There are fire sprinklers throughout the building now, not just in part of the building. They did away with the stained-glass roof that was in the sanctuary. The walls and floors have been redone. Removing asbestos was a large, costly part of the project. Ramps were installed throughout the church, and contractors built a commercial-grade kitchen, opening up future possibilities for preparing the food and helping the community.

“What we really believe is that God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but that God uses bad things when they do happen to help us grow,” Brownell said.

‘Wandering years’

Dealing with a large insurance claim, permits and a complicated construction project slowed everything down. Still, it’s exciting to be this close to the end; it’s like nearing the end of a race, Brownell said.

About a week ago, staff moved back into the church office adjacent to the sanctuary.

“What I’ve learned during this time is just how imbued with meaning buildings are for people,” Brownell said. “When you are in a structure where you’ve experienced weddings and baptisms and confirmations and funerals, those places really have sacred meaning for people. So, to be able to return here is really powerful.”

The small staff has an open-concept office now — something they discovered they liked during their time spent office-less. Brownell said the first thing she did was unpack her Bibles and prayer books and organize them on a shelf. She’s looking forward to poring over Bibles instead of blueprints, and leading classes again.

Vancouver United Church of Christ sees about 120 people on Sundays and has grown in its time spent untethered to a building — something that surprised Brownell. She estimates that about 15 to 20 percent of the current congregation has never worshipped in the actual church building.

“It was surprising, I think, to everybody how much our congregation really came together and grew,” Brownell said. “The spirit in the congregation was just very strong.”

During the “wandering years” as she called them, the congregation met at Congregation Kol Ami and then at the Luepke Center. At one point, it held choir rehearsal at the state School for the Blind. A construction trailer was used as a temporary office.

“But that wasn’t really big enough to have any significant-sized gatherings, although we did teach a confirmation class in that trailer,” Brownell said.

Despite being rootless, much of the church’s programming continued, she said, thanks to the community’s hospitality and the congregation rallying together. Over the summer, the congregation has met in a tent in the parking lot.

“It is disheartening to feel like you don’t have a place. And the constant scramble to sort of figure out where just really basic things are going to happen — it just has really given me a real understanding of people who are rootless for whatever reason, people who are immigrants, people who are homeless,” Brownell said.

“I hope that part of what we’ll do is take what we’ve learned about how stressful it is to just be always on the move and use that in our ministry going forward.”

The United Church of Christ, which has about a dozen congregations in the Portland area, is known for being active in social justice issues, such as the ordination of women and gay and lesbian people, marriage equality, and most recently the immigrant rights movement. Vancouver United Church of Christ’s former pastor, Brooks Berndt, left to become national minister of environmental justice at UCC headquarters in Cleveland, which is how Brownell first came to the Hazel Dell church.

Story not over

Brownell was the interim pastor before the fire two years ago. Her job was to prepare the church for its next settled pastor.

But the congregation voted for her to stay, and on May 20, she became the permanent pastor.

“It’s outside the bounds of how it’s usually done, but it sort of seemed like everything that’s happened since we’ve been together has been outside the bounds of what usually happens,” Brownell said. “There’s hardly ever such a devastating event in the life of a church.”

This spring, Brownell, who is 49, also got her first tattoo. It says be;loved — a reference to Project Semi-colon, a suicide-prevention project whose theme is “Your story isn’t over yet.”

“I just want to always remember that I’m a beloved child of God, and I want to always be a person who reminds people of that same message,” Brownell said.

She wanted to make a visible sign to people that their story isn’t over, her story isn’t over and the church’s story is far from over.

Now that the remodeling is almost complete, the fire marshal’s office has been inspecting the building to make sure it’s safe and ready to reopen. Investigators may never figure out who started the fire that led Vancouver United Church of Christ on its long journey to rebuild, but church members carry on.

“We just continue to extend our loving prayers to that person, whoever it was, and to let them know that we know that they’re a loving child of God and we hope that they’re getting the help they need wherever they are,” Brownell said.

After a pause, she continued: “So, I guess forgiveness is another theme that’s emerged for us.”

Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith