By Stan Friedman
MINNEAPOLIS, MN (July 29, 2013) – Two weeks after arson destroyed the sanctuary of Community Covenant Church, the congregation is living in the tension of grieving the past and looking forward with hope, says Pastor Luke Swanson.
“We’re still in the stage of why would someone do this to us,” Swanson says. “But we’re called to live as Christians in a broken world, and this has just heightened that for us. We’re not going to be beaten by hate. As Christians, we have no right to ever give up hope.”
One or more intruders broke into the church through a window and set the piano on fire late in the evening of July 11. Ultimately, the sanctuary was reduced to ashes. Heat from the flames also melted all of the church’s sound equipment, and the entire first floor is covered with soot.
A contractor has since removed everything from the space. “It’s kind of an eerie feeling to walk in the sanctuary and see it as it is,” Swanson says.
But the church also is considering how it will be. “I’m calling for us to slow down, instead of just throwing up walls and painting,” says Pastor Luke Swanson. It’s an opportunity to think more deeply about the nature of worship.
“Why do we worship the way we do, and the God we worship? These are questions we probably wouldn’t ask if it weren’t for the fire,” Swanson explains.
The church has been meeting in a local high school and using sound equipment loaned to them from Minnehaha Academy. Members also are taking initiative to replace items.
For example, Swanson says, all of the children’s “worship bags” that contained crayons and coloring sheets as well as other items were destroyed in the fire. A group of women in the church already has sewn new bags and then bought supplies with their own funds.
“No one asked them to do that,” says Swanson, highlighting it as an example that, “There is this real sense of coming together.”
When the church is able to meet together in its own sanctuary, Swanson says, “We want to reclaim the space as sacred space.”
Keeping that new space in perspective will be important, says Swanson, who explains that a story he has heard for decades has become even more important to him through this experience.
Northbrook Covenant Church in Northbrook, Illinois, where Swanson’s father, Wes, was the pastor had remodeled its sanctuary with beautiful furniture, altar, and other objects in the mid-1970s just prior to hosting the Central Conference Annual Meeting.
The speaker at the conference was famed preacher and civil rights leader E.V. Hill. “He got up and walked around the sanctuary placing his hands on all the new furniture, and he’d say, ‘These are the most beautiful pews I’ve ever seen.’ And then he’d lay his hand on the altar and say, ‘This is the most beautiful altar I’ve ever seen,’ and he did that through the whole sanctuary,” Swanson says. “But each time, he would lay his hands on the item and also say, ‘Temporary.’ ”
Swanson says what isn’t temporary is the work the congregation will do in the name of Christ. That includes continuing who they have been.
Whoever set the fire had spray-painted racist epithets on the church building. Community Covenant has an average attendance of 200 and is 70 percent African American.
“We’re a multicultural picture of heaven,” Swanson says. “I see this as an attack on that. I’ve learned that not everyone likes to see that picture of heaven.”
No suspects have been arrested, Swanson says.
Although the church will receive insurance money, the congregation also hopes to raise funds through a choir concert to benefit the reconstruction,” Swanson says. Plans include inviting local artists.
Swanson re-iterated he was grateful for the encouragement he and the congregation already have received from local congregations and other parts of the Covenant. “I’m so thankful to be part of the Covenant,” he says. “This has reminded me why I’m glad to be part of a denomination. I’ve gotten calls and letters from all over.”