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Fire destroys sanctuary but not spirits

Following a devastating blaze, Bethany Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, regroups and rebuilds

by Emily Enders Odom, Mission Engagement & Support | Special to Presbyterian News Service

A Jan. 2 fire did extensive damage to Bethany Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington. (Photo by Cate Wetherald)

LOUISVILLE — Never has a lectionary passage been more providentially timed.

Just four hours after worship ended on Sunday, Jan. 2, a major fire erupted in the sanctuary of Bethany Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, the result of what fire officials determined was an “overloaded circuit.”

And while the two-alarm blaze caused significant damage to the church building, no one was hurt.

A week later, on Sunday, Jan. 9 — as the process of cleaning the extensive water and smoke damage was already underway — tearful worshipers gathered online to hear words of comfort from the prophet Isaiah.

“It was such a gift to us, the lectionary for the Baptism of the Lord, not only being reminded of our belovedness in Jesus’ baptism, but also the passage from Isaiah 43, which straight up says, ‘Do not fear… I have called you by name, you are mine,’” said the Rev. Heather Tadlock, Bethany’s pastor, during a Monday telephone interview. “The prophet’s words, ‘When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned, and the flames shall not consume you,’ were just what we needed yesterday to remind us of the promises of God. We aren’t promised that hardship won’t happen or that we won’t face things like a fire, but the promise is that, in all these things, God will be with us.”

Because the church didn’t have a security system, Tadlock said that she was first alerted to the Jan. 2 fire by members of the church, whose neighbor had been driving down the street, saw the fire trucks and called church members, who in turn phoned Tadlock.

Firefighters in Spokane, Washington, battled the Jan. 2 blaze at Bethany Presbyterian Church for nearly three hours. (Photo by Dirk Vastrick)

“After I got the call at about 4:30, I got myself over there and began talking to the fire chief and waited for them to say that the fire was out,” Tadlock recalled. “I stayed the whole time with a few of our members who were also there. I’m glad the entire congregation didn’t come out.”

The blaze was extinguished by about 7 p.m.

Tadlock said that the church’s insurance policy will cover the costs associated with clean-up, restoration, and rebuilding, a process that is expected to take from six to eight months.

“The sanctuary area, where the fire started, will be taken down to the studs,” she said.

Bethany, whose original building was not the site where the fire broke out, has been in its present location, a former Assemblies of God church, for 10 years.

“Although we don’t yet know what the insurance will allow in terms of rebuilding the space, we are looking forward to making some changes and doing some dreaming,” said Tadlock.

In the meantime, the roughly 70-member congregation will continue to worship online, both out of concern for the omicron variant of COVID-19 as well as to give church members time to regroup and assess. Beginning Sunday, Jan. 23, the church will temporarily relocate its services to the Southside Senior Community Center across the street from the church.

“We’re a very careful congregation,” Tadlock said, “and although we have talked often about being in a time of exile during the many months of worshiping online, that was a choice we made out of love; out of not wanting to risk the health of neighbor or anyone. This is different. This happened. We have no choice not to worship in our building anymore.”

Tadlock further described the missional, theologically-progressive, community-centered, justice-oriented Matthew 25 church as “small but mighty.”

“Generosity is the hallmark of Bethany Presbyterian Church, not only in receiving the four denomination-wide Special Offerings as a Four for Four congregation, but also in its giving to the deacons’ fund and in giving of their time,” she said. “We have members who regularly help to settle refugee families into new homes. We have members who tutor children. We also have as members a retired PC(USA) mission co-worker couple, Brian and Sandi Thompson-Royer, with Sandi currently serving on session.”

During the past two weeks since the blaze occurred, Tadlock said that the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest — its staff, pastors and member congregations — has been an incredible source of support by offering prayer, worship space and especially the benefit of their expertise in working with insurance and restoration companies.

Repairs to Bethany Presbyterian Church in Spokane, Washington, are expected to take 6-8 months. (Photo by Dirk Vastrick)

“Bethany is an amazing church,” said the Rev. Sheryl Kinder-Pyle, Inland Northwest’s executive presbyter. “Even in the midst of their grief they are dreaming about how God is at work and what new possibilities for doing church may come from this tragedy. We will be journeying with them each step.”

Tadlock said that going forward she has no doubt that her presbytery colleagues will continue to be there for the congregation.

“God is with us no matter our situation,” she said in a written message on the church’s website. “We are still called to love our neighbors, we are still called to be a worshiping community, we are still called to be the people of God. And our congregation — the Bethany congregation — is a very resilient group of folks, a very faithful group of folks who are inwardly strong and yet outwardly focused on our neighbors and on our community. As much as we like our building, we are reminded again and again: The people of God are the Church — wherever we may meet.”


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