There’s a smell in the air that signals fire season in Los Angeles. The Santa Ana winds move in and people get antsy, like we all fear the bone dry hills are going to ignite at any moment. In 2007, a firestorm fueled by winds and parched chaparral tore through Malibu not once, but twice. Many homes were lost and the 60 year old First Presbyterian Church also was destroyed. I visited the area recently for a story on the fifth anniversary after the blaze and a new church is under construction . But I also attended services on the first Sunday after the original burned, and what was said among worshipers was touching. The photo above is from the LA Times. The one below is by Andy Holzman, Daily News. From my story (Daily News, Oct. 2007):
MALIBU – On the first Sunday after their church burned down, the people gathered and stood side-by-side, lifted their eyes toward the heavens and gave thanks.
The Santa Anas, known by their nickname in the West as the “devil winds,” had swooped down upon them last week, brought fire and smoke and clouded the skies with ash that reddened the sun. Despite the blaze that left Malibu Presbyterian Church in a heap of charred wood and exposed pipe, the people chose to rejoice in their faith in God and community.
“Last week, we lost a building, but we did not lose our church,” said the Rev. Greg Hughes, the church pastor.
Dressed in casual slacks and shirt, Hughes found himself in an unexpected venue, under spotlights and a professional sound system as he stood on the stage of the 500-seat Malibu Performing Arts Center where Sunday services took place, his shoes still caked in ash.
“Thanks for proving me right,” he said to the standing-room-only crowd of families and Pepperdine University students.
By now, the story of how the 60-year-old church burned down has become part of local history. Long after a new church is rebuilt, generations will repeat how the flames bore down on Malibu on a day when wildfires seemed to erupt from every corner of Los Angeles County. They will remember how the blaze began within the church spire and ate its way down into the sanctuary. They will be thankful that no one was hurt.
Only a cross that had sat atop the spire and some plastic playground equipment from the nursery school survived.
“What a difference a week makes,” Hughes said.
“Last week, we had a church. This week, we are like the Israelites wandering through the desert.”
For some, the loss of the church brought grief, as if a loved one had died.
Some stood up to recount the smiles and laughter that came with baptisms and weddings. They remembered the tears they shed at funerals, or just the quiet moments as they sat inside the church sanctuary to seek solace.
“I’m upset about this,” said Mike Rupp, a former Montreal Expos baseball player who stood to read a letter he had written about the 20 years he has attended the church.
“This church was a symbol of happiness and tears,” he said. “This building was my home. My safe haven. My refuge.”
In the days after the fire, Hughes said he had been asked repeatedly, “Why would God allow our church to be burned down?”
Through passages from the book of John, Hughes told the story of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back from the dead, a metaphor for what was to come.
“God allowed the suffering to take place so that something great could rise from the ashes,” Hughes said.
After the service, members of the congregation milled around the lobby to read letters posted along the staircase from well-wishers from places where faith also had been tested: New Orleans, Oklahoma City, New York.
Some revisited the site of their church, just off Malibu Canyon Road, to touch the ash and to spread it on their skin as a way to remember.
And others said that while they were saddened by the loss of their church, they were relieved there were no injuries. Some even saw the church burning down as a miracle.
“A church is so replaceable because it’s the people that make a church,” said Collin Wedel, a 21-year-old senior from nearby Pepperdine University, who attended services at Malibu Presbyterian since he began attending the college four years ago.
“Of all the things that could have burned down, in a way I’m glad it was the church because the church bore the brunt of the fires, to help save the rest of the community,” he said.