Baptisms, marriages, funerals. Thoughts of those events and others came rushing back to the minds of many Christ Presbyterian Church members as they watched their building go up in flames.
The church in Claremore, Okla., burned to the ground July 20, leaving Pastor David Schwenk and his congregants to scramble for a place to hold future church services. There was no service Sunday morning. Instead, Schwenk spent the morning sifting through the charred remnants of the building that served as his congregation’s place of worship.
“There’s nothing left; it’s totally destroyed,” said Schwenk, who has a construction background in addition to pastoring the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation. “What I see is building materials that once were part of an organized structure. To me it was a beautiful building that looked very solid and strong. In a matter of a few hours, it was nothing but a pile of rubble.”
As the flames leaped into the night sky over Rogers County, located east of Tulsa in northeast Oklahoma, the crowd gathered around the burning structure became emotional as they recalled memories built inside the stone walls of the multi-level building.
“I think I’ve thought more about it the last couple of days than I did that night,” said Gordon Besser, a deacon at Christ Presbyterian and the overseer of the facility. “I think I was in shock that night.”
The fire at the church was reported just before 10 p.m. Saturday. Because the fire already was burning so intensely, it was not safe for firefighters to enter the structure, so they attacked from the exterior and worked to protect buildings in the surrounding area.
A total of 12 agencies responded to the blaze, including firefighters from eight area departments.
Besser said it was startling to get a call around 10 p.m. about the church being on fire. He knew the kitchen area had caught fire some years ago, and with older wiring that may be possible again. He thought that was the case this time. But as he approached and saw the bright glow and smoke billowing across town, he knew it was far worse than any kitchen fire.
“That was not a good sign,” he said.
Schwenk added, “Did I have any idea on a Saturday night, on July 20, that at 10 c’clock I was going to crawl out of bed because the building was on fire and that by the next morning it would be rubble? No. I didn’t anticipate that … ever.”
The church, built in the early 1900s, was originally a wood structure that had a stone facade added to it later. Christ’s congregation had rented the facility from First United Methodist Church for a number of years before purchasing it about five years ago.
While the fire gutted the interior, the stone towers remained standing, even after firefighters worked through the night and well into Sunday afternoon to fully extinguish the blaze. The remnants of the building were toppled later Sunday to keep them from collapsing and posing a safety hazard.
Besser said there was little left of the church, except the stone that covered the outside of the structure.
“It’s all gone now,” Besser said of the landmark building in Claremore. “There’s very little left. It’s pretty much a total loss.”
The loss was made more painful because the church had been going through some renovations to the sanctuary.
“We had put a lot of work and money into the building, and it’s all gone,” Besser said.
But Schwenk reiterated that the church is more than the walls, floor, roof, doors and windows that make up the building.
“The building is not the church, the people are the church,” he said. “Anytime our identity is tied up in a building rather than Jesus Christ, we’ve made a mistake. Our identity is tied to Him, not the building.
“It’s a metaphor, really. God takes people’s lives that are in rubble, and He rebuilds them into something beautiful.”
Claremore Fire Marshal Jason Crandall ruled out foul play as a cause of the devastating fire, but indicated that the source could have been electrical, weather (lightning) or recent torch work on the church’s metal roof.
However, the damage was so substantial that Claremore Fire Chief Sean Douglas said the exact cause may not be pinpointed.
“It was a pretty devastating fire,” Douglas said. “The damage was so bad that we may not be able to determine what caused it. We can’t rule out those accidental causes, but it may be listed as an undetermined fire.”
Whatever the cause, the fire left Schwenk and his Christ Presbyterian Church congregation without the building they had worshiped in for more than 20 years.
Already there have been several offers made to provide the Christ congregation with places to hold worship services.
“We’ll have to find a place to meet,” Besser said. “We’ve already informally talked about what lies ahead. If we plan to rebuild at the site, we might go with a more modern metal building and use the rock on it.”
Apparently, there is no question about rebuilding. It’s merely a matter of when and where once insurance settlements are handled.
“We don’t know when or where, but we will rebuild,” Schwenk said. “This congregation is not going to dissolve. They have made that clear.”
Ironically, the congregation just went through a similar situation a little more than a month ago when a couple in the church lost their home and possessions in a fire. Schwenk said the call came during a worship service, and the congregation sprang into action to lend a helping hand.
“Our people are precious people of God,” he said. “Those folks pretty much lost everything, and our people were right there for them. We’ve already been through this once, and we have seen how precious our people are. I know they care. They understand Scripture, they trust God and they don’t get obsessed with material things. This is a time for us to reach out and touch people by trusting in God and what He will do.”
While difficult to deal with the loss of their facility, Besser said the 40 or so members of Christ Presbyterian will press on in service to God, knowing He will carry them through this time of tribulation.
“It’s discouraging, of course, to see everything go up in smoke, but we’re well aware that the church is not a building. That’s part of it, but the people make the church,” he said. “It’s a setback for sure, but we have to regroup and keep going forward.
“God has always supplied us a place to worship and finances to keep going. We don’t see that changing. Our faith is in God, not a building, and we’re trusting in the Lord to lead.”
Schwenk said tears have been shed and memories stirred, but the time has come for his congregants to follow God’s will in moving forward.
“Christianity is about the love of God for His people, His children,” Schwenk said. “A lot of memories and events occurred in that place. We have shed some tears, but no one is panicking. God has comforted our congregation and will continue to do so.
“I’ve been a pastor for 26 years, and I’ve always looked forward to tomorrow, to what God can and will do.”