Sunday, June 19, 2005

Chapter 2

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, "The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!" -- Job 1:16

When Willy died it started a series of events that have turned out to be watershed moments in my life. I have grown. And growth is painful.

Now I have begun another odd path in this journey. Thursday night my mentally handicapped child was playing with fire and burned down our church.

Here are the facts:

Our church is pretty large and has had many additions over the years. The original portion of the church was a used building that was moved to the site in the 50's. Its a "U" shaped basement has classrooms off the halls so it's full of odd little corners and out of the way places.

Behind the old sanctuary is a stairwell. In one direction it goes up to the baptistry, and the other winds down into the basement. Over this space are metal poles swinging out above the stairs to store banners.

J. (he's physically 16, mentally closer to 4) found himself alone and wandered into the kitchen of the old section in the basement and turned on all the burners of two stoves. Then he wandered off.

He found a lighter and a candle, went to the stairwell, and watched the little flame burn in the darkness. He took a sheet of paper and lit it. It flared up, he got scared, and grabbed "a red blanket" (a banner). "The fire turned blue." Frightened, he left, closing the door. He probably thought it would all just go away.

Our meeting was just ending and he came in. We went to say our goodbyes and get our other son. The alarm went off. Moving throughout the church to make sure everyone was out, Brenda found the stoves on. At first she thought that the heat from them may have been the cause of the fire alarm. She and one of the elders (Brenda first) found the actual fire a few minutes later.

We had a bad feeling it may have been started by J. but he consistently denied it. I told one of the elders what I suspected, and we let them start their investigation.

We were told that everyone who was in the church had to stick around and so we waited while five departments responded. In a typical Oregon Spring drizzle we watched as flames licked the corner of the santuary. I felt helpless and like our lives would never be the same again. And every once in a while we would turn to J.

"Do you know anything about this?"

"Did you start the fire?"

"Where were you exactly?"

Consistent denials and a sinking feeling in my gut.

Eventually they asked for our names and numbers and sent us home.

The police showed up at our house about 12:30. That's when he spilled it , they read him his rights, and arrested him.

The newer portion of the church has a gym, a new kitchen, a nursery, and classrooms, and was pretty much unaffected (except for soot). The coffee center, the library, the youth center, the pastoral staff offices, the basement classrooms, the food pantry, and the "family room" were destroyed. Estimated damage: $750,000.

Oh Lord. Tell me what you wish me to do.

The D.A. has not made a final determination yet, that will be tomorrow morning. But he indicated that he would probably use a small loophole in the measure 11 law which relies on intent. (Measure 11 lists certain crimes under which juveniles would automatically be tried as adults. Arson is one. The worst case scenario is an inclusion of attempted homicide because there were people in the building.) He asked me to bring the paperwork that shows J.'s mental abilities (IQ about 50). So I think he will bounce the case back down to juvenile where they will decide on what crime he may be charged with.

As for sticking with the church, there is no question. We will remain there. This morning we will hold our services at another church (Bethany Evangelical). They usually have three services each morning so they are giving us the use the middle service for a couple of weeks. It is going to be difficult to go to church this morning. But I need to stand up and take what responsibility I can.

Our church has really been supportive of this. B. and I have been like zombies since it happened and there has been a steady stream of people bringing food, offering prayers and help. Yesterday I stopped by Bethany church to offer any assistance to them as they prepare to squeeze their services to fit us in. There was a meeting going on of all the leaders of our church, about 15 men. The pastoral staff, the elders, the governing board, and about half of the deacons. It gave me a chance to apologize to them and share what is going on legally. They all gathered around me and prayed for us, and then each of them gave me a hug and said words of encouragement. It was pretty amazing.

One of them is a man I asked earlier in the year to mentor me and he and his family coming over this morning for breakfast and go with us to the service together.

We have not been honest with ourselves about his abilities. He is really more like a 3 or 4 year old. Those false, prideful, parental dreams have been swept away.

Yesterday I put an alarm on J.'s door so I would know when he left his room at night, put up seven more smoke detectors, and bought a 2nd fire extinguisher.

I really expected to have the media pounding on our door. I mean there must be 300 people who know it was J. and no one told the news people (and there were news vans, helicopters, newspaper reporters, the works). But I guess in a town like this folks just felt it wasn't any of the media's business.

Our pastor was interviewed, saying that we are really members of "the first church of Canby that just happens to meet in different buildings." The other churches have offered the use of their facilities if we need them. We routinely work with them on many other sorts of things, food for the needy, building a Habitat for Humanity house, monthly prayer meetings that rotate from church to church.

Well, it is time to get ready for the day. I am apprehensive about the service this morning, but I think it will be ok.

We have been going through a lot, and there is much more to come. But all growth is painful.

When Willy died it hurt so bad. But good did arise from it. What might rise from these ashes? I think I will collect some from that spot on the building that persistently flicked its hot tongues along the old sanctuary's eves.

While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said ". . .and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!"

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