By Paula Schlueter Ross
Of all the social-media photos of the devastating May 15 fire at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, one stands out: As the historic 1878 building smolders, its roof and sides lost to flames, there’s a rainbow, a sign of hope amid the ashes.
“A rainbow always has significance because of God’s promise to Noah,” notes vacancy pastor Rev. Ed May, who has served the congregation since January. It’s a promise, he says, “of God’s faithfulness, that He will always stay with His people.”
The four-alarm fire, which began sometime before the first fire-department call at 3:45 p.m., spanned five hours and at one point involved 110 firefighters. No one was injured.
Damages to the church and nearby Trinity offices are estimated at $17 million. Although the church has insurance, ongoing inspections and assessments are expected to continue for a month or more, so the congregation is exploring temporary alternative worship sites.
A number of local churches already have offered to share their buildings, according to May.
Investigators have not determined a cause for the fire, but have ruled out arson. When the blaze broke out, the church’s slate roof was being replaced, but it is not known if that was a factor.
Acknowledging that first-wave sense of “shock” among the downtown congregation’s 300 members, May echoed the sentiment of a Trinity elder who remarked that, two days after the tragedy, “the peace of God” seems to be “settling in now.”
People are sensing God’s presence and His words, “I am with you always,” noted May, and that He is “going to work this out.”
The Rev. Jonah Burakowski, a mission executive with the LCMS South Wisconsin District who has been working alongside the congregation’s leaders in the wake of the fire, noted that while losing an historic and much-loved church building is heartbreaking, “the congregation is where the people are gathered around the means of grace,” wherever that may be.
Burakowski described Trinity, the first racially integrated church in Milwaukee, as a “very spiritually mature congregation” where members consider one another “family” and the church building as belonging to God, not them.
So, the real post-fire priority, he added, won’t be the building. Rather, it’s the congregation, the families, and making sure they — and other Milwaukee residents — can continue to worship and receive the sacraments.
Whether or not the church will be rebuilt isn’t yet known, but Burakowski told Reporter that the congregation won’t be leaving its familiar corner at 9th and Highland.
“Trinity will exist on its corner,” he said, although what that will look like still needs to be determined.
May notes the “new opportunities” for Gospel-sharing the fire has created, with Christ-centered Trinity being “very visible on the news every night” and in numerous news stories.
That widespread exposure brings “a tremendous opportunity for people to hear that [Gospel] message,” he says, and he fully expects to see “new faces joining us in worship.”
In spite of the tragedy, it’s “a new day,” May says, adding he is “extremely hopeful” about the congregation’s future.
The South Wisconsin District has started a fund to help Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church pay expenses associated with the fire. Contributions may be sent to South Wisconsin District–Trinity MKE Fund, 8100 West Capitol Drive, Milwaukee, WI 53222. To give online, visit swd.lcms.org and click on the “Donate” button.
Posted May 25, 2018