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Arizona church ‘persevering in the spirit of love’ after devastating fire

Support being offered by Presbytery de Cristo, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and the community

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

First Presbyterian Church in Douglas, Arizona, was severely damaged by a fire Monday. Authorities have charged a man with setting the fire that damaged the church and a neighboring house of worship, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. (Photo by Gregg Brekke for the Presbyterian Foundation)

LOUISVILLE — The congregation and leadership of a Presbyterian church that was set on fire earlier this week in Douglas, Arizona, is determined not to give up despite major damage to the building.

Known for its benevolent work with migrants, First Presbyterian Church burned Monday morning, along with neighboring St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, as the result of what authorities believe were intentionally set fires.

Despite the shocking nature of the fires and uncertainty about the future, the Rev. Peggy Christiansen, a co-pastor of First Presbyterian, speaks with determination.

“What we want people to know is that we are persevering in the spirit of love,” Christiansen said. “There is no act of hate that can overcome that and that we are in this for the long haul.”

Both St. Stephen’s and First Presbyterian were unoccupied at the time of the fires and no injuries were reported, according to authorities with the city of  Douglas.

Along with significant damage to the roof of First Presbyterian, “the sanctuary floor is also collapsed,” Christiansen said. “There’s no more pulpit. There’s no more baptismal font. There was a beautiful wooden cross on the wall; that’s gone. We have these gorgeous stained-glass windows and they’re severely damaged. It’s hard to say what’s going to be possible to save.”

However, the church already has plans for holding worship this weekend. “We will be having church service on Sunday in the park that is right across the street from our church … and having our church service outside, and I have to say that seems particularly appropriate for Pentecost Sunday,” Christiansen said.

In the wake of the fire, Presbytery de Cristo has been walking alongside the congregation in various ways. The church’s determination to push forward and worship this Sunday shows “that Jesus is alive and present within them and the wind of the Holy Spirit continues to blow through the gathering of First Presbyterian, Douglas,” said the Rev. Brad Munroe, the presbytery pastor.

Munroe said that along with assistance offered from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, there has been an “outpouring of personal and congregational offers” of support. For example, “I have heard everything from ‘Hey, we bought too many hymnals’ to ‘Hey, we have Bibles. We have pews.’” Also, the presbytery has been in contact with officials from The Episcopal Church so they can be in the loop as requests and offers of support come in.

A PDA volunteer will be present at worship on Sunday and a PDA team plans to meet with leadership at Munroe’s request.

Christiansen spoke of how loving the Douglas community has been. “We’ve had offers from the Methodist church, offers from the Catholic church, the Mormon church, the Baptist church. You name it,” she said, calling the response “amazing.”

Both fire-damaged churches are located in Douglas’ historic Church Square, where there are a total of four churches, each representing a different denomination and reflecting the area’s diverse faith traditions, according to the city of Douglas and Christiansen.

“It’s devastating for people in many ways, because this is not just a historic, beautiful sanctuary for the Presbyterian Church, but it is also that for the city of Douglas,” she said. “This is a small town, and this is one of the few beautiful landmarks we have here, and so the city of Douglas is reeling and they’re also very shocked that someone would do this.”

“The city of Douglas is reeling and they’re also very shocked that someone would do this,” said the Rev. Peggy Christiansen, co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church. (Photo by Gregg Brekke for the Presbyterian Foundation)

Prior to the fire, “we have not received direct threats that I know of,” said Christiansen, who said Thursday that a motive had not been confirmed. But a suspect, Eric Ridenour, 58, has been arrested and was expected to be transferred into federal custody. (View this television report for more on Ridenour’s court appearance.)

“As far as our congregation goes, you know, they’re obviously in shock and in grief. On the other hand, I have to say that, as of today, I am feeling very hopeful,” Christiansen said. “So many people have reached out with offers to help and it looks like it might be possible to rebuild. That is not a definitive statement, but apparently that possibility exists.”

There’s also a possibility that the church’s fellowship hall, which is adjacent to the sanctuary, might be useable at some point. But the whole situation is still being assessed, Christiansen said.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is providing an emergency grant to help the church address its immediate needs. “The purpose of it is to be used to enable the church to continue their ongoing ministry to the community that is at risk because of the damage,” said the Rev. James Kirk, National Disaster Associate.

Kirk said fires at churches are particularly devastating for people because “churches hold a very sacred place in their lives, as so many life events happen in the context of a community of faith.” When a fire appears to be intentionally set, he said, “it’s even more impactful as people struggle with, ‘Why would somebody intentionally do this?’”

Douglas Mayor Donald C. Huish issued a statement saying, “the incidents at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and the First Presbyterian Church are a profound loss for the community of Douglas that extends beyond the physical damage to two of our city’s most historic and cherished churches. My heart goes out to every member of our community affected by this loss. The Douglas community stands together with these churches and we pray for their comfort and strength during this challenging time.”

PDA’s Migration Accompaniment Ministries (MAM) has a history with First Presbyterian Church, which has been on call as a potential place of shelter for migrants during a time when the U.S.-Mexico border was impacted by people desperate to enter the country before Title 42 ended.

“Through our connectional church, PDA has long been aware of First Presbyterian Church of Douglas and its commitment to be a place of just and inclusive welcome,” said Susan Krehbiel, associate for MAM. “So, we were not surprised when we heard two weeks ago that they were opening their church as a temporary shelter to asylum seekers released by U.S. Customs & Border Patrol in their community. PDA responded immediately to support this new ministry with an emergency grant to help fund their operations.”

However, Christiansen said, “it looks like we have not had the numbers here in Douglas” that other communities may have received.

According to Munroe, St. Stephen’s and First Presbyterian were “overflow facilities” that assisted migrants, so “it’s really important that they get rebuilt in some form or fashion that will be determined later, and that they are able to continue these vital migrant ministry services for the legal asylum process.”

Want to help? A GoFundMe page is in the works. Meanwhile, you can contribute to this Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Fund, DR000126. Another option is to contact First Presbyterian Church at P.O. Box 410, Douglas, Arizona 85607.

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