By Jeni Miller
The congregation of Grace Lutheran Church in Vestal, N.Y., will gather for worship on Sunday, May 24. However, the Divine Service celebrating the Day of Pentecost will take place in Grace’s parking lot.
On May 18, a storm-related fire tore through Grace’s 59-year-old church building, severely damaging the structure which has been declared a total loss — including a brand-new organ and new set of hymnals. An education wing housing the church’s preschool was spared from the fire, but sustained slight water and smoke damage that prevented the building from being used for the preschool graduation May 19.
Grace is part of the LCMS Eastern District, and not only has the support of LCMS Disaster Response based in St. Louis, but also a local District Disaster Response Coordinator (DDRC) — the Rev. Kristian Bjornstad — who was able to be on-site within an hour of hearing the news of the fire. Eastern District President Rev. Dr. Chris Wicher also was soon on the scene, as well as Circuit Visitor Rev. Robert Foote and other pastors from nearby LCMS congregations.
“In this case, no one’s personal safety or livelihood was at stake, so the stress of the situation was not terribly high, even though there was much shock and sadness,” said Bjornstad. “So this was my main job … just being the presence of Christ among them … assuring them that they were not alone and that there was much hope for the future.”
“The church building is a total loss,” added Bjornstad. “It is insured for $2,000,000 — but that won’t, preliminary estimates indicate, be quite enough to rebuild on the current site. It will take some time to decide what the congregation wants to do exactly. There are plenty of options. But what is definite is that they are a congregation strong in their faith and desire to re-establish their worship sanctuary.”
In the meantime, the congregation has already received words of encouragement and support from LCMS churches far and wide, in addition to local (LCMS and non-LCMS) congregations — 20 of whom offered their sanctuaries to Grace for future use.
“We are humbled and very thankful for all the words of consolation and offers of help from so many people,” said the Rev. David Bernard, interim pastor at Grace. “Our ‘mantra,’ if you will, to those who comment about our church being destroyed is, ‘Our house of worship is totally destroyed, but our Church, the children of our Heavenly Father, redeemed by the blood of Christ, is fine; battered, bruised, in deep mourning, but ready and willing to follow God’s plan for our rebirth.”
As the congregation makes plans to move forward, the Rev. Michael Meyer, manager of LCMS Disaster Response, reminds LCMS members to pray for this congregation as they begin the “long and arduous task of rebuilding.”
“It sounds simple, but for a congregation that had no plans for a building project, they will need to decide what their future church might look like,” said Meyer. “Dealing with architects and floor plans and contractors with finishing touches will complicate the life of this church. In this task, the devil will seek to cause strife and division. Yet Christ has promised that He will never leave them nor forsake them. He will keep them safe, and He will unite them in His Word.”
Deaconess Jeni Miller (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer and member of Lutheran Church of the Ascension in Atlanta.
Posted May 22, 2015