A blazing fire raced through and ravaged historic Memorial Presbyterian Church in Boothwyn, just southwest of Chester, on Easter Monday, April 17. No one was injured, but firefighters were only able to rescue several its precious religious items and little else.
Yet, Memorial’s friends at Linwood Heights UMC in Linwood were friends indeed, as they rescued the landmark church’s Sunday morning worship services by putting out their own welcome mat with an invitation to share their space.
“I was devastated when I saw the condition of the building,” Memorial’s pastor, the Rev. Robert Kaufman, told a reporter. One of the rescued items was Kaufman’s personal ordination cross. A young fireman brought the charred cross out to him. “But it’s in perfect condition,” the pastor said. “That’s the word from the Lord. We will rise again.”
Although now destroyed, the 132-year-old Memorial Presbyterian, one of Delaware County’s oldest churches, is fortunate to share a ministry partnership with Linwood Heights UMC and with Cokesbury UMC in Marcus Hook.
“We are all in the same zip code, same school district,” said the Rev. Ethel Guy, Linwood Heights’ pastor for the past six years, “and we join forces in community worship for Ash Wednesday at Linwood, our joint Christmas Carol Fest at Cokesbury, Easter Vigil at Memorial, and so forth. Our joint hymn sings are a raucous good time, and we sure love to eat together.”
So inviting Memorial to share Linwood’s space was just a “natural, comfortable extension of our long-term partnership,” Guy explained. Other churches, including Cokesbury, also offered, but Linwood Heights has the handicapped accessibility that Memorial needs, said Guy. “Plus, Memorial’s organist used to play at Linwood; so she was coming home to an instrument she knew well.”
On the Sunday after Easter the Linwood church proclaimed its welcome to Memorial Presbyterian in bright lights on its electronic sign—a modern-day welcome mat. And Memorial’s processional cross, also charred by the fire, now has a place in Linwood Height’s chancel.
It is a fortunate though temporary solution to what began as a sudden, inflamed crisis.
“I had just come through a joyous but tiring Easter Sunday, including an afternoon wedding for a long-standing Linwood Heights family,” recalled Guy. “I sure was looking forward to sleeping in on Easter Monday.”
But at about 8:30 AM a church member who also works for the local fire company, called her screaming, “Bob’s (Rev. Kaufman’s) church is on fire! Bob’s church is on fire!”
Guy, who was an emergency response and incident command leader in her previous career, is also a trained, certified fire and police chaplain who serves with Fire Company 39. She donned her chaplain’s insignia, got into her car and raced to the scene to help.
“And what a scene it was!” she said. “There were at least seven local fire companies onsite by the time I got there.”
The pastor/chaplain recalls “operating on two personal frequencies at that moment.” One was to care for her Memorial Presbyterian Church friends, as she embraced and comforted them. The other, as chaplain, was to address the needs and safety of the firefighters and other emergency responders at the scene.
“They can go through some pretty traumatic moments in emergencies, and they need the presence of a chaplain to help them debrief and process what they have seen and experienced,” she explained. “I began looking for Company 39 personnel. In the six years I have operated as their chaplain the entire fire company has become an extended part of the Linwood congregation. I have performed their weddings, baptized their babies, and buried their loved ones.
While everyone was safe, by the time morning ended, they were exhausted, she said. “It was good to seek each one out, and sit with them for a quiet moment. One of the firefighters standing on an extension ladder over the roof of the church at the height of the fire was a young man whose wedding I performed last September. He and his bride are expecting their first child this fall. I needed, for my own sake, to verify that he was OK and to praise God for his safety, as well as that of the others I know so well.”
Yet, Guy added, “Even as I was running across the street into the middle of the fire equipment, I was crying in pain with my friends from Memorial Pres, who were dazed in shock and disbelief. I embraced each of them, and found the words, ‘God is working even now. God will lead us through this,’ coming from my mouth. There was such certainty in my heart that the Holy Spirit was leading us, even in that horrible moment.”
There was never a question about inviting the Memorial Presbyterian congregation to share Linwood Height’s space, said Guy. “Our trustees jumped at the chance. We talked about joining in worship together as we have in the past; but it was far more important for them to have their own time together as a congregation to mourn and to heal.
Memorial’s members now worship there on Sunday afternoons, following Linwood Heights’ services. The host church also “adopted” and made space for the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery group that was meeting at Memorial. “The leaders of our recovery ministry at Linwood have embraced them,” Guy said, “sharing materials and that all-important coffee pot, because they lost everything in the fire.”
“And so we go forward, one step at a time, with God’s guidance,” said Pastor Guy, and with full confidence, no doubt, that the two churches will take those uncertain steps together.