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Historic New Jersey church shows growth 21 months after devastating fire

Congregation reacts to setback with renewed commitment to serving God

December 22, 2017

The historic sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church in Englewood, New Jersey suffered extensive damage in the March 2016 fire. (Photo by Richard Hong)

For over 140 years, First Presbyterian Church was the centerpiece of historic Englewood, New Jersey. But that all changed on March 22, 2016, when a fire broke out, leaving significant damage to the sanctuary, destroying original stained-glass windows and causing the roof to collapse.

“The sanctuary was gutted, and it took us months to get the smoke and water damage out of the rest of the building,” said pastor Rich Hong. “Every carpet, blind, curtain and ceiling tile had to be replaced. But the building is cleaner than it has ever been.”

Hong says they renovated the church gym to serve as temporary worship space and expect to be there for several more years.

“We resolved that life would go on as normal, and the rebuilding is simply something we are doing while we run our church,” said Hong.

In the meantime, church growth is on the upswing. Since the gym is smaller than the old sanctuary, the church added a 9 a.m. contemporary worship service on Sundays, and it has brought in new families.

“The additional service is something the church hasn’t had in 50 years. Our attendance is up and attracting families that don’t even realize there was a fire,” added Hong.

The temporary worship center has also given staff an opportunity to experiment.

“We’ve started livestreaming our worship services, so the gym makes it easier to wire up new electronics,” he said. “We’ve installed a better A/V system, a camera for livestreaming, internet connections — all of the things that are easy to do in the gym. It’s like a laboratory for what we will do in worship once we get into the new sanctuary.”

More than $100,000 was raised at a fundraising gala for the church last week. (Photo by Richard Hong)

The church hosted more than 300 people for a fundraising gala. The “Spark Hope” Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction was an opportunity to not only raise needed funds but also recognize people in the community who have assisted the church in its recovery efforts.

“A majority were not members of the church. It was an event to celebrate our community ties,” said Hong. “The event raised more than $100,000.”

As the church looks to rebuild, Hong says the design will take on two aspects. The exterior of the sanctuary will be restored to look as much as it did before the fire to better mix with the town’s architecture. The inside will be different.

“We would prefer a classic design that is flexible and equipped in the most modern way possible,” said Hong. “We can’t imagine building a sanctuary that is not fully A/V-equipped. Why would you not look to install the latest technological capabilities in a building that is classic in its design?”

Hong says that after the fire, the congregation made a few resolutions, resolving not to cut back on mission giving and activity and not to allow reconstruction to “suck up all of their energy, time and attention.” He adds they’ve been able to do that and more.

“Even our members have remarked that they are experiencing church differently,” he said. “They thought they loved the building, but have realized they love people more.”

 Rick Jones, Mission Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency, with additional reporting by Emily Enders-Odom, Director of Alumni/ae Relations, Union Theological Seminary in New York

Today’s Focus: First Presbyterian Church of historic Englewood, NJ

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Dwayne Batcho, PMA                                         
Jon Baxter, PMA   

Let us pray:

Gracious God, lead us to hearts that need to know your love, and help us to demonstrate the hope you offer us all. Give us strength to respond with the love you have shown us, so that we may serve others in your name. Amen

Daily Readings

Morning Psalms 102; 148
First Reading 2 Samuel 7:18-29
Second Reading Galatians 3:1-14
Gospel Reading Luke 1:57-66
Evening Psalms 130; 16

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