After fire, church begins recovery

Timothy Dawson/Staff

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In many ways, Sunday’s service was exceptionally normal.

The First Congregational Church of Berkeley congregation sang hymns and the Gloria, took communion and laid hands on a soon-to-be-married couple. Kids squirmed in the pews, and collection plates were passed around.

But after a three-alarm fire Friday burned two of the five buildings on the church’s Dana Street campus, the service felt like “wearing borrowed clothing,” said young adult minister Kit Novotny.

The service, held at the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley — across the street from the now-fenced-off campus — reflected on themes of rebirth and adversity, as the church came together to remember the buildings where many had sought refuge and comfort. After a reading from 2 Corinthians, the service reflected on the idea of home and place.

“Our displacement will remind us we are at home with one another and with God,” said senior minister Molly Baskette during her sermon. “Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint.”

The fire, which started about 12:30 p.m., began on the roof of Pilgrim Hall, the church’s administrative building, and later spread to the main sanctuary. In addition to fire damage, there is extensive water damage in the basement of campus, as well as in the church’s library and archives. Church officials also fear damage to the plaster and walls of the sanctuary, and until a structural engineer can assess the strength of the building’s walls, the parking lot will be closed. No cause for the fire has been determined at this point.

The full extent of the damage, however, remains unknown, as church officials wait for investigation reports from Berkeley Fire Department on the affected buildings. Electricity, water and gas are all currently shut down for the entire campus.

“The building is damaged, but the church is still here,” Baskette said. “This service was a time to grieve, but also to dream of what the church can be.”

To help with the recovery, church officials encourage community members to donate to a GoFundMe page. An insurance claim on the buildings is currently open, Baskette said.

“People come to church to hold on to the consistent things in life,” Novotny, who wore borrowed robes from First Presbyterian Church, said. “That’s why we’re here.”

While the church has not found a regular space, officials said most regular meetings such as Sunday school will continue. Church officials said they hope to reopen the East Bay School for Boys, located on the campus, by next week. A family that lived in Pilgrim Hall is currently receiving Red Cross assistance while it looks for alternative housing.

The First Congregational Church advertises itself as “faithfully progressive” and its parishioners said they appreciate the accepting nature of the community.

“It has a strong social justice ideal,” Novotny said.

At the service, they prayed not only for the first responders to the fire, but also to the people of Aleppo, Syria, the children of the world and the country’s democratic process.

“This is a place that thinks about the broader community and cares about the world,” said Debbie Woods, a 15-year attendee of the church.

Kim Dru, a transgender woman who joined the church six months ago, said the community was “genuinely welcoming.”

“It takes loss for a people to carry together and show who we really are,” Dru said.

At the end of her sermon, Baskette reflected on walking into the church after the fire was finally extinguished. Before the fire, a banner reading “Wake up and Dream” hung outside the church. Baskette said while the top half of the banner burned in the fire, “the dream remained intact.”

Contact Austin Weinstein at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @austwein.