Bert Martin, a member of the Vancouver United Church of Christ, recalled getting a phone call while deep in sleep an early morning in May 2016.
His church was on fire, he learned.
At the scene, he remembered, firefighters were concerned the cross atop the west steeple of the church’s sloping, boat-like roof would fall on homes below.
“They wanted to take it down before it fell down,” he told to the congregation at a rededication ceremony for the church Sunday afternoon. “They worked on that cross for several hours, but as hard as they tried they could not get that cross to come down. I think that sums up our experience as a church perfectly.
“The fire was a terrible experience, but through the faith of this church and the loving hand of God, we could not be brought down.”
An arsonist struck the church, also known as the First Congregational United Church of Christ, at 1220 N.E. 68th St., early morning May 25, 2016. The fire nearly destroyed the sanctuary’s west steeple, did more than $2 million in damage, and displaced the congregation and church services for more than two years.
In the aftermath, the congregation made Martin chair of the committee tasked with planning a rebuilt church.
The congregation had easy access to old plans and photographs of the church, built in 1961, and could have been rebuilt like new, he said. Instead, they chose to not let the fire define their community, and decided to see how they could reimagine the church as something equivalent or better.
“A space that is not just accepting of others, but provides a place in which we all worship and experience God as equals,” he said.
The sanctuary was rebuilt without permanent steps, so there’s no ramps off to the side, but a path inside that’s the same for all those who enter, he said.
They removed a back wall in the sanctuary to open up the space, and used chairs instead of pews to make it more flexible. Builders added a large window in the back, and replaced stained glass in the roof with skylights to bring in more natural light, Martin said. They also added new audio equipment and improved acoustic paneling.
“We wanted a space that wasn’t just a gathering space on Sunday morning,” Martin said. “We wanted to create a space that allows us to open ourselves up to the community and to the world.”
They also redid the kitchen.
“Because what is a UCC church without lots of good food?” Martin joked.
During the ceremony, church pastor Jennifer Brownell and the congregation offered effusive thanks to the responding firefighters, insurance company workers, property restoration firm Belfor and its workers, congregants who helped organize the rebuilding and the other churches and civic spaces that opened their doors.
The packed house rose to its feet for multiple standing ovations.
At the time there was no telling, as church members gathered to watch in shock at their faith home burning, what would come next, Brownell said.
“Even now we know it will take time for the lessons of the fire to be fully known, but here’s what we do know,” she said. “We do know what it means to be a people in exile, wandering far from what is familiar. We know that our congregation, friendships and relationships are stronger than we thought possible, and we know that this beautiful building will carry us far into the future.”
Brownell led the assembled guests in a litany of dedication, to commemorate the occasion and affirm the repaired church’s commitment as a place of praise, inclusiveness and love.
“We dedicate this house,” the congregation responded.
The fire at the Hazel Dell church was the first in a string of church arsons that spring.
The following day, again in the early morning, firefighters responded to a fire at Liberty Bible Church of the Nazarene in the Salmon Creek area. Sprinklers doused the flames, limiting fire damage but causing extensive water damage.
An arsonist struck again early morning May 29, 2016, at the former home of the Bethesda Slavic Church, which is now Daybreak Youth Services, a youth mental health and substance abuse treatment facility.
County officials formed a special team to investigate the arsons. Clark County Fire Marshal Jon Dunaway said officials are still following up on occasional leads, but nothing has helped them identify a possible suspect.
“We will continue working these cases and remain determined to find those responsible and hold them accountable,” he said in an email.
Anyone was helpful information can contact him at 360-397-2186, ext. 3324 or the Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s tip line at 1-877-274-6311.