Church hit by arson calls for hope, unity as it continues ministry
Sunday service was a bit different this week at New Life Missionary Baptist Church in north St. Louis: it was held out on the lawn.
That's because the church building at Plover Avenue and Bircher Boulevard sustained significant damage following a fire on Oct. 17, one of a string of arsons against predominantly black churches in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County.
The lack of a habitable building didn't keep Pastor David Triggs or his church members from worship. Using chairs donated by Oak Hill Presbyterian Church and tents provided by the Red Cross and the United Way, more than 50 people gathered to pray.
"The community is really responding in a tremendous way; it’s just overwhelming," Triggs said. "Sometimes you’re just at a loss for words with how much people care when you think they don’t. We come here every Sunday and we preach and we minister and we have food pantries, and you just wonder if people are getting it, and I think we’ve been able to connect with the community."
Though Triggs called the loss of the building "heart-breaking," Clinton McMiller, a deacon-in-training at New Life, said it was important to hold services despite the loss.
"We want people to know no matter what you’re going through, press on," he said. "We want to show the world we’re going to press on."
Agreed longtime church member Sarah Mae Jones Brisco:
"The church is in your heart, no matter how they burnt it down, whatever they done, you can’t burn God’s word down," she said.
Similarly, Triggs preached a message of resiliency.
"We are in the fire right now, but we are going to rise out of the fire victorious, and I know from out of these ashes, God is going to build beauty," said Triggs during the service, to which the crowd responded, "Amen."
That beauty, Triggs said, can be found in the coming together of the faith community across both faith tradition and racial boundaries. It was a direction his church was already pursuing before the arson, as it transitions from New Life into the United Believers in Christ Ministries.
Triggs said churches of all faiths and people of all races had reached out to his congregation to offer services to help rebuild as well as materials like Bibles. Triggs himself had been invited to speak at the Shrine of St. Joseph, a mostly white church, after it became the most recent arson target.
"It has been amazing," he said. "We’ve had Pentecostals together, Baptists together, Catholics together ... that would never have happened if this attack on the churches hadn't happened, so it’s really been a Bible prophesy fulfillment at its finest: the church being reconciled."
Before the service at New Life, two white women from the Union Avenue Christian Church brought Triggs baked bread and offered their prayers, and a St. Louis fire department truck gave a friendly honk as it drove by.
"It really just echoes what I was saying: the community of faith is really coming together, white, black, Asian, Hispanic, every race, nationality," he said. "This is what our new ministry stands for: we're united. We don't see color, we see people."
Several white visitors were among the mostly black church members at Sunday's service. Triggs had also invited Daryl Meese of Woven Community Church in Ferguson to lead some prayers.
"I have come to love north country, but man, some people think it’s ... a desolate land in a forsaken city, and it’s the furthest thing from that," Meese told those gathered. "Here we have people praying for this city, praying for this place, coming together in the name of the Lord that a new thing can happen, that we can worship together that our children can play together, that their differences won’t be ignored but celebrated by a God that loves diversity."
Kelly Dougherty came to the service along with her husband David Wise, who was invited friends involved in the social justice organization Faith for Justice.
"I wanted to come and show support for the community here and let them know they’re not alone," Dougherty said. "I’m a social worker so I believe very strongly in community and in social justice and standing together."
Others like David Peterka of St. Louis came in solidarity as well as to bridge racial divides. He said he wanted to "help facilitate healing in that area."
But Triggs noted that more work will need to be done to keep the connections among different faith and racial groups.
"The cameras are going to go away in a couple of weeks, but how will we stand together after today? Moving forward, will we be able to keep that bond of unity?" he said. "It’s just going to take the effort of each one of us individually making the determination that we’re not going to become divided again, that we are going to continue to stand and continue to reach our communities in the best way we can."
Triggs said he doesn't want the arsons to further divide people by assuming it was a racially motivated attack, something authorities do not yet know. Triggs said person responsible was likely hurt by a church in the past, and called on faith communities to take responsibility to reach more people by pushing further into the community.
"While we’re seeking justice for this individual and we do want this individual brought to justice, the church needs to understand this is not a white-against-black churches issue, or a black-against-black churches issue, this is a sin issue," he said. "This is a spiritual attack coming against our church."
Looking forward, Triggs said his church was "blessed" with an offer to use another, smaller building in the Baden neighborhood for time being. It's not the first time New Life has had to build from little. Jeremy Jones of Bellefontaine Neighbors said in the church's early days, it held services in the basement of another church.
"We’ve been making it happen no matter what, from the beginning," he said.
But Triggs acknowledged the growing church will likely rebuild its new permanent location outside of the Walnut Park neighborhood, where it has been an "icon" for two decades.
"Our public promise to the Walnut Park area is that wherever we go and wherever we rebuild, we’re still going to come back here and sew into this community in someway," he said.
For Valerie McMiller of St. Louis, a longtime member of New Life, it doesn't matter where the church ends up.
"We don't have a piano out here, we don't have drums out here, but we have the church," she said. "We have the Holy Spirit that dwells inside us. No matter where we go, we take the church with us, because we are the church, so we got to let the light shine."
Triggs said UBIC Ministries has started a GoFundMe account called the "Phoenix Project," a nod to the fire. Another group, Faith for Justice, has set up an Indiegogo account called "Support for St. Louis Churches" to raise funds for all of the affected faith groups.
Follow Stephanie Lecci on Twitter: @stephlecci