Holy Trinity - Updated

Our 110-year-old Episcopal church, the second-oldest in Juneau, Alaska, burned a month ago. A young man became angry when he was ejected from a party and decided to burn the boat parked in an alleyway near the party house. He sloshed gasoline on it and lit it. We assume he didn’t mean for the church on the other side of the alley to catch fire, but it did. Of course, we did not know this at the time. We just knew our church was burning.

The fire began about 4:00 on a Sunday morning. By the time the firefighters came, the building and a small house nearby were fully engulfed. So we lost the whole building and three people their home.

After it was determined no one was in the boat (our first thought was a homeless person was sleeping in it), and no lives were lost, or anyone injured, we continued to look on the brightest side possible. The next day high winds were blowing. If they had been howling the night before, the entire neighborhood of old wooden houses would have burned. It was also said two years ago the building insurance had been raised to the maximum possible, and best of all, the bill had just been paid.

Yes, the building is gone, but a church is the people, not the building, we assured one another. I privately thought a building is nice as well, but didn’t say so.

The Roman Catholics, whose cathedral is up the hill a hundred yards away, instantly offered their sanctuary for our service. Rumor says they even offered to let our woman priest officiate. However, since we’re not Catholic, we were more comfortable with the upstairs at their parish hall. One side is almost all windows and some tables were pushed together to form an altar under them. The five local priests, retired and active, officiated.

Phone calls began at 6:00 a.m., and by 8:00 our congregation, including many who come only at Christmas and Easter, assembled. We sat on folding chairs facing the altar and the regular service was held. It was surreal facing the windows as we sang hymns and heard the Lessons while watching great billows of brown and black smoke rising from Holy Trinity below as the firefighters fought the blaze.

During the Passing of the Peace (Holy Trinity is chatty lot and moves around the church during the Peace) there was much hugging and repetition of the church being the people, not the building. I am not sure just how much of that we believed, but it did bring us closer.

I remembered a traveling exhibit of Alaska Episcopal Church history twelve years ago. Holy Trinity contributed some fine old altar cloths and a beautiful silver portable Communion set. I said nothing, but told others of the words of Lorraine, one of our oldest members, who when told of the fire, said she had a good supply of linens, so not to worry.

All the local Episcopal priests were there. Our current priest, a very tall man, had been lent a cassock. As it was the second Sunday in Lent, it was purple, but somehow long enough. A former priest of the church in the valley, who had a beautiful Athabaskan beaded stole he wore on special occasions was there, but in plain clothes. Kathleen and Hunter, our women priests were there, also in ordinary clothes. All the vestments had been stored in the church. Mark, our retired priest was there, but out of deference wore only a cassock.

Communion bread was served on a saucer and the wine in a glass. No altar rail, so we formed a ragged line as we went up.

After the service, the Knights of Columbus prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs, sausage, and potatoes, with juice on the side. We ate heartily even after we heard this originally had been planned for their own congregation. That’s the pushy Episcopalians for you.

I felt dreadfully sorry for Lorraine and the other lifelong members. I talked to my 17-year-old granddaughter and realized it had also been her church all her life.

The next Sunday we were beginning to adjust to our new quarters. The priests had been loaned stoles and the ruin of the church had been surrounded with a chain link fence. (The undercroft was deep.) Small bouquets and notes had been fastened to the fence. The cause of the fire had been determined. We prayed for the arsonist as sincerely as we could. What a dreadful burden he has to bear the rest of his life. (Of course, I couldn’t help but privately wonder if he would ever understand just what he did. On the other hand, perhaps I should pray for him to never realize just what he did, and so suffer from overwhelming guilt.)

It was announced coffee hour would be a joint affair. Sadly, it seemed the usual Catholic after-church social time was on par with ours. Some bakery muffins sliced into quarters and juice and coffee were it.

Palm Sunday brought another large adjustment. I noticed extra chairs had been set out, but no one used them. George, our priest, had almost finished his sermon, when the door opened and a small man in an open-necked shirt and khaki pants came in, followed by around 25 people, mostly young with young children. They were all clean and neatly dressed, but the shiny nylon coats and polyester showed these were not rich people.They took the empty seats in complete silence while their leader stood beside George.

The leader gave a short, heartfelt speech about unity, then finished with “We have only the widow’s mite. Here is $7,000 dollars; it’s all we have.” His voice broke.

“It’s just the widow’s mite, but we want you to have it.”

George leaned over and enveloped the small man in a big hug. We stared, then we clapped. The clapping wasn’t thunderous; we were still finding the words hard to absorb, but we needed to do something.

The pastor led his group out as quietly as they had come in.

As we passed the Peace the story came out. Mark is the pastor of the Victory Foursquare Church here, a Pentecostal organization that meets in the Seventh Day Adventist basement for now. He had been thinking about the fire, and Saturday evening decided the right thing to do was give all their money, most of it the building fund, to us. His congregation agreed. We have no idea how long it had taken the group to accumulate $7,000. It would have come in coins and dollar bills; when you work in a gas station or as a checker at the grocery store and have little kids, there’s not much left over to give the church, greatly though you believe.

$7,000 wouldn’t buy anything in Juneau except hope. The damage to Holy Trinity is estimated at $2.4 million. We are a parish of comfortable homes and solid occupations. Would it have occurred to us to give our funds to another Alaska Episcopal Church, let alone another denomination? No, we agreed. If our priest had suggested we give all our money away, we would have thought him strange indeed.

What to do about those with so little giving us all they had?

We looked at one another and we all were crying.

There’s another report now. I’ll mention the young woman and children selling lemonade from a card table on the sidewalk to raise funds for Holy Trinity, but this is mostly about two Sundays ago, when two young women stood in the doorway of the church for a few minutes before taking a seat. One sat next to me. They were both wearing too much make-up and their nicest clothes; tight satin tops that stopped at the midriff and short tight skirts. They wore the detached, defiant faces of teen-agers feeling out of their depth. After the sermon they rose and went up to the priest.

“ Here’s a check for $162.00 we raised at a rock concert,” one said before they returned to their chairs. I whispered to the one next to me that our communion was open, if she’d like to stay. She didn’t. When communion began, they both left.

George, our priest, told us this Sunday that we were accused of bringing about the fire because we allow those of other faiths, gays and lesbians, in fact, anyone at all, to attend our church. He pointed out the wealth we have been given, far beyond any monetary amount possible.

Dee Longenbaugh

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