After its sanctuary is burned by an arsonist in 2020, a PC(USA) church in Springfield, Massachusetts works to rebuild

Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church will host a gala March 2 to help complete the work

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

An Dec. 28, 2020 arson fire did extensive damage to Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. A gala set for March 2 is designed in part to raise enough money to complete the church’s rebuilding.  (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Terrlyn L. Curry Avery and the congregation of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Massachusetts, look forward to a March 2 gala designed to “raise money and celebrate — and raise spirits as well,” the church’s pastor said.

“The Agape Gala transcends being just a fundraiser; it is an opportunity for our community to come together, celebrating our shared vision and fostering hope for a more peaceful and loving world,” Curry Avery said. People who participate with their financial support “become an integral part of our journey towards healing, rebuilding, and fostering a spirit of love in the face of adversity.”

A key component of the gala is the Called to Conquer Awards, created to recognize individuals who embody agape principles and actively pursue social justice in various capacities. Three awards will be presented: the Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr Award to an agape love ambassador, the Ida B. Wells Award to a social justice trailblazer, and the Bryan Stevenson Award to one who’s brought about community healing and reconciliation. According to Curry Avery, a committee is selecting awardees who aren’t necessarily well-known in the Springfield community. “It takes more than just the people who are out and about,” she said. “There are others doing the work just the same.”

More than three years after an arsonist burned the sanctuary of the predominately Black church, members and friends are well along in the rebuilding process. Curry Avery expects the work to be done by mid-year or late summer. On varying Sundays during the month, church services are currently held inside the gymnasium, with another Springfield congregation and online.

Watch this video to learn more about ways the church plans to continue serving its community once the rebuilding is complete. The church is working on a multipurpose sanctuary it’ll be making available to the community and plans a labyrinth, educational programs, and a recovery program for formerly incarcerated individuals. “That’s why we have community in our name,” Curry Avery said. “We are here for the Springfield community.”

A $500,000 grant from the city, other grants and insurance funds have paid for the rebuilding work so far.

“We have never stopped doing ministry, not during Covid or since the fire happened,” Curry Avery said, ticking off a list that includes diaper drives, voter registration forums, mental health workshops and food programs around the holidays.

The Rev. Dr. Terrlyn L. Curry Avery

A trained psychologist, Curry Avery said the trauma that was inflicted on the congregation on the night of Dec. 28, 2020, “impacts us. Particularly as people of color, we have learned to adapt to situations that have been trying and challenging, and our faith helps us move forward.”

“I know it takes time to get through grief and trauma” that comes with “somebody destroying your place of worship because of the color of your skin.” She said her message to the church has been, “We are the church, and that was a church building. Parishioners have held onto that as we move to sustain ourselves.”

Carlton Edmonds, 87, has been a member at MLK Jr. Community Presbyterian Church for more than 40 years.

“The church has been really active in the community” through outreach efforts as varied as basketball, tutoring and food programs, he said. “As an old guy coming out of the 60s, we were taught you had to do something,” Edmonds said. “As we go forward, I’d like our headset to be, what can we do for the community? Our demographics have changed, but people still need help.”

A year ago, the church started offering promising scholars tours of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, HBCUs. Edmonds appreciates the impact those tours have had. “You can sit down with them, and you could see they now had options they didn’t know they had,” he said of the students’ experiences. “It did my heart good.”

The sanctuary of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church following the arson fire. (Contributed photo)

Edmonds said people in the congregation “are doing everything we can to figure out how we rebuild and what we do about [boosting] membership and serving the community. It has something to do with keeping that spirit of service.”

The Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo, general presbyter for the Presbytery of Southern New England, said the presbytery continues to work alongside the MLK congregation through support grants for pastoral leadership and liaison support of its Committee on Ministry and Trustees.

“We are excited that the rebuild stage is upon us, and for the fundraising gala in March. We’re looking for a large turnout from around the presbytery and even neighboring presbyteries,” Vance-Ocampo said in an email. “It will be a great night, and we are looking forward to celebrating and expecting new things in ministry for this new year at the Martin Luther King. Jr. Community Presbyterian Church.”

“An arson on an African American congregation is not a small event, but one of deep and intentional trauma and wounding,” Vance-Ocampo said. “We intend as a presbytery to help this community move forward wherever the Sprit is leading.”

“I hope that the larger community of Presbyterians around the country will mobilize to support this congregation, even if they cannot attend the gala in person,” Vance-Ocampo said.

The gala will be held from 6 p.m. through 10 p.m. Eastern Time on March 2 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts. Comedian, actress, voice-over talent and author Rolonda Watts will emcee the inaugural event.

Tickets are $100. For more information or to purchase tickets, go here. To donate to the church’s fire fund, go here.

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