Kansas City church hit by arson

By Paula Schlueter Ross (paula.ross@lcms.org)

April 13, 2017, update: The arsonist has been caught and charged with 2nd-degree arson.

“Our church prays for justice, but we also include in our church prayers the arsonist, that this event in his life will lead to repentance to and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,” says Pastor Bradley Zerkel.

The congregation, he added, “is nearly back to normal spiritually and emotionally,” and the new doors have arrived and will be installed.

Original story, posted March 17, 2017:

The gasoline-fueled fire that damaged the doors of the education building at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Mo., around 7:15 p.m. on Saturday, March 4, was caught early.

The doors to the education building of Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Kansas City, Mo., show scorch marks from the March 4 fire that has been called arson. The congregation no longer operates a day school, but holds Sunday school classes in the building, which also houses staff offices. (Our Redeemer Lutheran Church)

A blessing, acknowledges Pastor Bradley Zerkel.

“If the fire had spread to the sanctuary,” Zerkel said, “that might have been too much for the people” of the congregation, who helped restore the church after a more serious fire four years ago that pretty much gutted the sanctuary. Damages from that fire, caused by outdated wiring, took three years of repairs — and worshiping in the basement of the education building — before the church could reopen last spring.

“I think we’ll be all right” this time, said Zerkel. “We rely on God.”

“Relying on God” is what keeps the pastor reaching out to the poor in this gang-plagued, inner-city part of Kansas City where he has served since his seminary graduation 15 years ago.

Since then, the 120-member church has been broken into more than a dozen times — an “ongoing” challenge, the pastor says. To increase safety, its three weekend worship services and two “outreach” services per month (the latter includes a free meal) are held only during daylight hours for three equally representative member groups: Anglo, Liberian and Hispanic.

It’s “a very unique Missouri Synod church,” Zerkel admits, with long-time Anglo members — some drive 50 miles roundtrip each Sunday to attend services, just as their parents and grandparents did, because “they care about the church” — as well as African refugees, Hispanic immigrants and, lately, a few Vietnamese.

They are all, he says, “a gift from the Lord.”

The suspected arsonist — whose image was captured on surveillance video while setting the fire — had come to the church’s food pantry/used-clothing repository a half-hour earlier for a jacket, which he received, and became angry with the pastor when he was not allowed to leave with a number of other items. The situation escalated, and the young man made several heated threats to Zerkel, who said he’s experienced similar confrontations before and would “rather extend grace, [and] take chances, than not extend it.”

The church video was released to local authorities and media, but at this writing no arrests have been made.

Although the flames were contained to the front doors of the education building (which houses Sunday school classes and staff offices), “the whole church” was affected because of smoke damage, Zerkel said, and “every single thing” had to be professionally cleaned before the church reopened “with great attendance and joy” on Sunday, March 12. The epistle reading, Rom. 5:1-5, focused on hope and peace, he added.

A brief worship service was held in the church the morning after the fire, March 5, so the pastor could share details and pray for the suspect’s “repentence” and for “justice.”

LCMS Missouri District President Rev. Dr. R. Lee Hagan contacted Zerkel that morning to share his concern, and the district reached out via its Facebook page to ask for donations to help with repairs. The church’s insurance policy has a very high deductible — more than what the current repairs will cost — so expenses will be borne by the congregation, according to the pastor.

“Our Redeemer is truly one of the most diverse congregations in the district,” Hagan acknowledged, and “has become a beacon of hope in urban Kansas City.

“I encouraged Pastor Zerkel to keep the course in being faithful in preaching the Word and showing mercy to those in need in their neighborhood. Our Redeemer has been through a lot in recent years, but we are thankful that the congregation continues to be salt and light.”

Even though the smell of smoke was heavy during that first post-fire service, “it was a very healing service, we just let God speak through His Word,” said Zerkel.

And while the pastor prays for justice in the case, he also prays that the young man who is charged with setting the fire “finds Jesus.

“I hope he comes back and gives a testimony to the congregation [about] how his life has changed,” something for which the entire and unusually diverse Our Redeemer membership will “praise God,” said Zerkel.

Posted March 17, 2017 / Updated April 13, 2017

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