How the fire started and how they first heard about it:
The sexton had come by the church for something; he called the parish administrator at home, who called me. Since Emmanuel sits in the middle of downtown Champaign and our fire closed three main roads during rush hour, the news spread very rapidly — I was getting texts and Facebook messages every minute or so. I ditched my car about a block away and said “I’m the pastor!” to the policeman who tried to stop me from entering the perimeter, and when I saw the look that came over his face I knew this was bad. That evening, all we knew was that there were flames engulfing the roof of the rectory space (which is mostly used for storage these days.) We didn’t find out until some days later that the cause was a short in an electrical junction box in the attic.
Damage from the fire:
Yes, the rectory attic was damaged significantly by the fire. The roof burned through in two places and was structurally compromised (slate is heavy!). There was of course smoke damage throughout the whole property that had to be remediated as well (and ServPro did a great job.) Most of the post-fire effect on the rectory, though, was from the huge amount of water poured through it as the firefighters were heroically facing the flames and saving the rest of our property (which, as they emphasized, could easily have been a total loss). Lots of soaked plaster had to come out, for example.
Help from the community:
One of the things we know about God is that he uses tragic events like this for good, and this was no exception. Before the fire was even out we had two offers of places for us to hold services if needed, and nearly every priest in my deanery was in touch to ask what help their church could give us. We received cards and notes from other congregations, and people sent unsolicited donations in. A local business we connect with through our involvement in the Champaign Center Partnership even phoned to offer me a free apartment if I needed it!
Emmanuel had a discernment process underway about use of the rectory; how the fire came into play with that:
About 10 parishioners and I spent most of 2017 seeking God’s guidance on how he might be calling us to use the rectory space for mission. We prayer walked, interviewed, researched, studied Scripture, and prayed a lot. The group had concluded its work and presented a vision to the Mission Leadership Team for the rectory to become flexible space that can serve, as they called it, both as a “front porch” and a “living room” available to the community, other non-profits, neighbors, and our own parishioners. We weren’t 100% sure where the money was going to come from, and a lot of the interior spaces that would have needed work anyway now have fresh damage that is covered by insurance. The costs will be much higher, of course, and we have a whole new group charged with figuring out practicalities. But in the end, we believe there’s a blessing in this because it gives us easy access to do things like systems work, putting in insulation, and making the first floor ADA compliant.
Inside Emmanuel days after the fire:
One of the things I am proudest of is the way ministry continued on completely undaunted. The next morning, when we were without heat and without power, our lay sack lunch volunteer just showed up as if, well, of course we were still going to be ministering to the homeless. We had weekday Mass as usual later that day, and I had such a sense at the altar of all of us standing before Jesus in glorious defiance of what evil had tried to do to us. There was a major funeral for a beloved lifelong parishioner three days away, and a 1662 Evensong with a guest ensemble from Chicago four days away, and it all happened exactly as planned. The staff were amazing, and parishioner after parishioner stepped up in ministry in all kinds of ways. I was interested how many comments we got about how, in the media, comments coming from the parish consistently pointed to our mission and our trust in God. Events like this are Gospel opportunities, and we really witnessed that.
Visit from the firefighters:
Fire Chief Gary Ludwig came in to talk with me because in the paper and on TV I’d said thank you to the firefighters so many times. As we got to know each other, he and I discovered we are both people who believe very deeply in the importance of gratitude as a stance towards life. We put our heads together and decided the crew that was on duty should come to Mass one Sunday so Emmanuel could express our thanks and pray for them. It was a deeply moving time for everyone there. Plus our kids got to wear fire hats and climb on the trucks!