Arson behind fire at Centerton church building10-07-2011
Arson behind fire at Centerton church buildingBy Amy Forbus
A Sept. 15 fire that rekindled early on Sept. 16 and gutted the building belonging to Living Waters at Centerton United Methodist Church was officially ruled an arson on Sept. 29. At press time, it remains under investigation by the Centerton Police Department.
The northwest Arkansas congregation, the product of a merger two years ago between long-standing Centerton UMC and three-year-old Living Waters UMC, won’t have a permanent home for some time, but it still meets each Sunday. Just two days after the fire, they worshiped in their food pantry, about a block away from the damaged sanctuary—even though the warehouse-style facility does not meet city safety codes for occupancy. They met in Centerton City Hall the following week.
The church petitioned the city planning commission for a conditional use permit, which would have allowed them to meet in their food pantry building for up to four weeks, but the permit was denied at a Sept. 27 commission meeting.
So as they search for another place to meet, Living Waters at Centerton, which has seen worship attendance as high as 124 people, will continue gathering in a City Hall meeting room that holds only 100 people.
The City Hall meeting room does not include any space suitable for a nursery or other children’s ministries.
“We can’t stay there,” said the Rev. Blake Lasater, the church’s pastor. “We’re actively looking for someplace else.”
Though not officially declared such, it appears Living Waters at Centerton UMC’s 91-year-old building is a complete loss. A fire restoration company estimated that two months of around-the-clock labor would result in a clean shell ready for rebuilding.
Lasater says that everything except the masonry and brick shell of the structure would have to be removed before considering a rebuild. “That’s probably going to max out our insurance policy,” he said. “And then the question becomes, even if you do rebuild, and you go to attach a new roof or a new floor, are the walls going to stay intact? Because the mortar between the bricks is crumbling.
“The fire was just so hot that the bricks, the integrity of the mortar’s just not there. One engineer said, ‘I’d seriously worry about drilling a hole in the wall and the thing just crumbling around you.’”
One bright spot in the tragedy: Though they have small cracks, the building’s stained glass windows seem to be salvageable. Lasater said having the 1970’s-era exterior doors replaced had been something he’d wanted for three years, but their weakness actually saved the windows. The fire created a backdraft that blew open the weakest point of the building—and it turned out the doors were weaker than the stained glass.
“If we had had new doors there, it would’ve blown the windows out,” he said.
The congregation hopes to incorporate the historic windows into whatever facility follows the destroyed one.
The bigger bright spot, though, is that the people remain defined by their faith, not by a charred structure on their property.
The church’s lay leader, J. Harris Moore, received a phone call from another member a little after 8 p.m. the evening of the fire, telling him the news. He left his home to meet other church members at a car lot near the church, where they waited for an hour or two until firefighters and police permitted them to get closer to the building.
When the group did walk in, they saw that chair upholstery and ceiling fan blades had melted, basement windows were blacked out and the building had sustained smoke and water damage throughout.
“Then we as a group went down to the bottom of the stairs, out of the way, and had prayer,” Moore said. “It was a prayer of unity, community and togetherness…an uplifting prayer that this was not the end for the congregation.”
In the early stages of recovery, the people of Living Waters at Centerton UMC have been surprised to receive unsolicited love offerings from within and beyond Arkansas and United Methodism.
A couple from Prescott—“I don’t even know if they’re connected to a Methodist church or not,” he said—sent a small letter of condolence and a $1,000 check.
And when Rylee Griffin, a kindergartener from Lasater’s hometown of Cecil, saw news of the fire reported on television, he contacted Lasater’s mother to get an address for where to send help. When Lasater opened Rylee’s letter, he found a handwritten note with $5 from the boy’s savings.
Churches are sending help, too. Nearby, First Baptist Church of Centerton took up a $1,500 love offering for Living Waters at Centerton. And across state lines, two churches in the Louisiana Conference served by the Rev. Henry Stone, a seminary classmate of Lasater’s, sent a couple hundred dollars.
“With everything else going on in the world, these people are taking the time to send what they can,” said Lasater.
Though the leadership team has not yet gathered to begin the process of deciding where, when and how to rebuild, ideas for features of a new gathering space have begun to rise up from the old building’s ashes.
“We do know that it’s not going to be fast. It’s not going to be next week, it’s not going to be next month,” Moore said. “The leadership team still has to meet and make that decision…. I think we will do whatever is best for the congregation as a whole.”
Moore acknowledged it’s OK to not make the decision right away. “I think the point is that we’re still going to be the church,” he said.
“We’re looking at metal buildings, something that’s going to be functional and practical,” Lasater said. “We can make the front of it look aesthetically pleasing pretty cheaply. We’re not trying to build a monument. We’re just trying to build a functional, practical building.”
Lasater said the building and its contents were covered for up to $950,000 in damage, so Living Waters at Centerton UMC will have some resources to work with as they discern how to move forward.
He said one of the struggles of this early recovery phase has been identifying damaged equipment and finding documentation of the building’s contents for insurance purposes. He urges other churches to remember that this type of disaster may happen in any building, and to keep those types of details cataloged.
“That’s stuff that needs to be documented and stored off-site, [so] you can immediately pull up and say ‘Here’s what we lost’ and go from there,” he said.
In some ways, the fire presents an opportunity to fix some problems. For example, accessibility was an issue with the old facility, which had an abundance of stairs. Lasater says that a handful of members who had attended the original Centerton church since childhood were among the first ones who pointed out that they can now design something that doesn’t present challenges for people who have difficulty walking.
“I was surprised,” he said. “They were ready for the next chapter.”
“It just seems like all of us are on the same page, and we’re just kind of almost excited about what the future’s going to bring.”
“The church is not the building, no matter how historical it is,” Lasater says. “You kind of have to just get beyond that and realize that God’s not left you. You’ve still got a mission and a ministry.”