By Stan Friedman
MINNEAPOLIS, MN (July 15, 2013) – Members of Community Covenant Church have shed many tears surveying the destruction of their sanctuary from a blaze set by one or more arsonists last Thursday night.
The fire ruined everything. The electronic equipment melted. The pews, chairs, altar, and baptismal were destroyed. Soot covers the walls of the entire first floor. The Covenant hymnals were soaked as firefighters fought the flames.
“But the overall sentiment is for the loss of the grand piano,” said pastor Luke Swanson. “To see the piano in ashes is devastating.”
The piano was where the arsonist or arsonists chose to use an accelerant and light the fire. That only worsens the pain for church members, Swanson said.
Twenty years ago, Community Covenant Church held a joyous service in which they blessed their new grand piano. “They had worked hard to raise the money for that piano and get it refurbished,” said Swanson. “This was a big deal for a small inner-city church.”
In the two decades since, it has been the primary instrument for the congregation. “The music has gone hand in hand with the mission for decades,” Swanson said. He points out that the congregation of 200 has a children’s choir of 65 kids.
“We like to say that you can tell if a person is doing well spiritually if they have a song in their heart,” Swanson said.
The piano was not the only part of the sanctuary the congregation had reclaimed for use. Church members found the altar in an alley after someone dumped it there.
Like the piano and altar, the lives of people have been reclaimed through the church, and the sanctuary was “a sacred space that was full of stories,” Swanson said. “There are a lot of memories in a sacred space. It’s where people have heard God’s word and God’s call.”
On Sunday, the congregation worshiped in large grass field next to the church. Among the songs they sang was “We’ve Come this Far by Faith.” Swanson said, “It’s a gospel song that has been very meaningful to our people.”
The church will continue to look to the future with the same kind of faith, he said. “No one can stop us from worshiping.”
Swanson added, “We serve a living God. What I’m told is, he’s pretty good with ashes.”
The church building will not be restored until at least October, Swanson said. Until then, the congregation will worship in a college preparatory school down the street.
On Friday night, the church held the closing picnic for its vacation Bible school in the same field where they worshiped Sunday. Joining them were members of Sanctuary Covenant Church, which had partnered in the VBS, and others. At least 250 people attended.
Swanson said his appreciation for the broader church has only grown in the fire’s aftermath. Minnehaha Academy, which is operated by the Northwest Conference, supplied a portable sound system for the Friday and Sunday events.
Numerous people from around the country have called to ask how their congregations might help, Swanson said. The church has established a relief fund. Anyone who wants to donate can send contributions to the church at 901 Humboldt Avenue North, Minneapolis, MN 55411.
Authorities continue to look for whoever set the fire, which is believed to have started some time after 11 p.m. The vandals broke in through a window.
The fire was discovered by church members who were looking for a lost key in the nearby field and saw the smoke around 11:30 p.m. “If parishioners hadn’t been looking for a key, the whole place would have gone up,” Swanson said.
Seventy percent of the congregation of Community Covenant is African American. Before setting the fire, the arsonist(s) spray-painted racial epithets on the building. “There was a lot of foul language and use of the N-word,” Swanson said.
Eight fires were set in the neighborhood that night, including to wood fences and cars. The church was the only structure on which racial remarks were scrawled, Swanson said.
Swanson said Friday that arsonists had also set fire to the building in the 1960s. “They didn’t like our congregation then, and there are people who don’t like it now.”
“As we learned this week with the children at VBS, we can stand strong in Jesus,” Swanson said Friday. “Community Covenant is united in Jesus, and we will clean up and rebuild. We will also pray for those who persecute us.”
He added, “I think the real story is we’ve been a worshiping community for 65 years in a low-income neighborhood, and we are going to continue being a worshiping community and salt and light.”