The normal Sunday morning worship service didn’t happen Feb. 21 at Eastside Free Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon, but a crowd gathered for a prayer service following a church fire earlier that morning.
Pastor John Unger said a church security video showed a man starting a fire in recycling bins at 1:28 a.m., and the bins’ plastic material became an accelerant. The fire spread to the nearby church building.
“A police officer responding to a call was driving by our church and saw evidence of the fire even though it was on the back side of the church,” Unger said. “It happened pretty quickly from the time the fire was lit to when the police saw it and [firefighters] responded on scene.”
Unger received a call around 2 a.m. and arrived within 15 minutes to find the fire mostly out, but the church sanctuary received extensive damage from smoke, heat and water. The sanctuary and some classrooms are not usable at this time, but he believes other parts of the building, such as the church office space, will be functional when electricity is restored to the building. The congregation is seeking temporary space for its worship services.
“The fire burned up into the soffits or eaves of the building and then into the attic space above the sanctuary and spread throughout that space, so there’s damage to the trusses and the sheathing on the roof,” said Unger, who added that firefighters had to put “thousands of gallons of water in there, which saved the building but created quite a mess.”
Worship team member Patty Hicks said the fire was especially difficult because the congregation had remodeled with new carpet and paint a year ago, and people outside the congregation helped. She said the church building is used by members of other Portland community groups “whose lives will be disrupted.”
It was an emotional experience for Hicks and other members to walk through the church building Sunday. “Seeing the sanctuary basically destroyed was hard,” she said. “That’s where we come together to pray and worship.”
The congregation does not yet know how much of the damage will be covered by insurance, but a GoFundMe account has been established for people who would like to contribute to the rebuilding effort.
Unger said that church leaders notified members early Sunday about the fire and that the traditional worship service could not be held, but a prayer service would be held at the normal time in the youth room. To the pastor’s surprise, members of the Solution Motorcycle Club — a “clean and sober” group that uses the church building for addiction-recovery meetings— showed up for the prayer service.
“They normally go for a ride on Sunday mornings, so they had all met at their clubhouse,” Unger said. “Several of them said, ‘We’ve got to go over there.’”
Other community members heard about the prayer service and joined the motorcyclists and regular church attendees, which resulted in a crowd larger than the youth room could hold.
Unger does not believe Calderon had any issues with the church, and he has not heard a motive.
“The police told me he walked in and surrendered on his own,” Unger said. “I’ve seen his picture online, and I didn’t recognize him.”
Unger believes God is in control, and He can use an evil act for good. The pastor sees the crisis as an opportunity that could lead to forward momentum. He said the church board is meeting and considering: “What’s God up to here? … How can this be a moment for growth and for the kingdom?”
Hicks agreed that God can bring good out of the fire, and she asked that people pray for members “to have eyes to see what next steps we need to take and to learn the things God is going to be teaching us through this rebuilding process.”