In Psalm 74, the Psalmist pleas with God to intervene against enemies who have “roared within your holy place,” setting fire to the holy temple and desecrating it. A recent string of arsons left two churches coping with such heartbreaking damage, but through the smoke they glimpsed a vision of unity.
Church of the Angels in Pasadena, California, was among the attacked churches. The Rev. Robert Gaestel, rector of Church of the Angels, told TLC that the 129-year-old parish was lucky to escape catastrophic damage from a late-night attack on Jan. 13.
In addition to setting the fire, an attacker smashed statues, defaced the church with graffiti, and pulled crosses from the altar and tossed them into the fire. “It could have just been a disaster,” he said. “We’ve been doing very well. We were able to get back in the church the very next day.”
Parishioner Steven Leland told TLC that parishioners worked hard to worship the day after the fire, which became a part of the healing process. “One of the things we were absolutely intent upon was getting back up and having church the next day. The church was smokey, so we burned some incense to make it a holy smell,” he said.
Baptisms were scheduled for that day, and they were held. “There’s something magical about it: you’ve taken a punch, but the next morning you’re bringing new people into the faith.”
“We’ve been called a poster child for disaster recovery and resilience,” Gaestel said. “If you have a natural disaster, that’s one thing. But a human-caused violation, that’s a whole different animal. It was really important that we get back into the church.”
Of some help to Church of the Angels was nearby Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, a parish of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Resurrection helped connect Gaestel and Leland with vendors who could quickly restore damaged items. One such relic: an altar cross that had tossed into the fire.
“It was badly burned and singed, and the glass jewels in the arms bubbled and broke,” Leland said. The cross went to a metalsmith, who recast it in fire, and then a to a jeweler. A parishioner finished the restoration by applying silver leaf to the cross, which returned to the parish on Easter Sunday.
Resurrection soon needed help of its own. On Jan. 25, a fire consumed much of the church’s first floor. A 25-year-old suspect has been arrested and charged with arson and vandalism of both churches, in addition to charges related to two other churches and a sheriff’s station.
“Resurrection suffered immense damage — they’re still out of their church,” Gaestel said. “We were lucky we caught it early, but Resurrection would tell you that they’re lucky, too.
“Another 10 minutes and the whole church would have gone up. We’re all counting our blessings.”
Unlike Church of the Angels, Resurrection’s congregation was unable to re-enter the sanctuary quickly. Parishioners worshiped in a tent in the parking lot, and fundraising continues to restore the building. Among those raising funds: Church of the Angels. At a March 11 Evensong, the Episcopal parish raised about $2,000 to help its Roman Catholic neighbor. Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection was there to thank his neighbors.
“I felt very much at home with the Evensong, but more importantly, by the warmth of Father Robert, who arranged for his congregation to help with our parish restoration,” Monsignor Moretta told Angelus, the newspaper of the archdiocese. “On behalf of the people of Resurrection, I want to sincerely thank our brothers and sisters at Church of the Angels for their support.”
Since then, Moretta and Gaestel have shared lunches. Gaestel was invited to attend the 50th anniversary of Moretta’s ordination.
The experience has left Gaestel and Leland appreciating the miracles that followed the fires.
“I was surprised that a whole bunch of neighbors came out to help us. We’re good neighbors to everyone, and that’s fine, but they don’t come to church,” Gaestel said. People showed up to the church and expressed grief at seeing their neighborhood church burned. “The Christian faith goes deeper into the culture than we might sometimes think.”
Leland agreed. “We were just dazzled by the outpouring of support from our neighbors,” he said. “People have feelings about it, even if we don’t see them on Sundays.” Among those who turned out: a carpenter who works in the entertainment industry who helped patch a broken window and provided cleaning supplies. “On and on, people have come out with donations.
“It’s also drawn the congregation together. The rector reminded us to be kind to each other during this time. We held a town hall where people could ask their questions and vent their feelings.”
Another miracle: at Resurrection, the arsonist knocked over a heavy statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe. As she fell, she hit a hardscape planter and broke it. She lay face down, surrounded by broken masonry.
“The assumption was that [her face] was completely shattered,” Leland said. “But the statue was absolutely unscathed. The sidewalk cement was broken, but she was really unhurt. So, they lifted the statue back in place.”
Leland said that at the March Evensong, the priests joked that Roman Catholic churches always experience the best Marian miracles.
“Woe are you who mess with his mother, because she hits back.”
An Overnight Bombing
Adapted from the Diocese of Texas:
Sometime between the end of evening worship May 9 and the beginning of school the next morning, a package detonated outside the office door of St. Stephen’s Church in Beaumont.
No one was injured in the blast, which drew a large response from Beaumont law enforcement, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the FBI, said to the Rev. Steven Balke, rector.
Balke immediately called police and soon had the office and school evacuated. “The FBI is here and checking the property,” Balke said. “Everyone is taking this very seriously, especially since there is a school involved.”
An explosive device was found at a nearby Starbucks on April 26, but it had not detonated.
Balke, who had attended an eighth-graders’ breakfast at All Saints School on the church campus, said he is grateful the explosion happened before he arrived at his office and thought of retrieving a box at the front door.
“We are very blessed that no one was injured,” he said. “We are grateful for the messages of support and for the prayers that we have had from friends in town and across the country.”
Scootie Clark, head of All Saints’ School, said she was proud of her students. “The kids were calm and respectful” as they left campus, she said, adding that she realized previous practice for emergency situations had been valuable.
Melanie Hartfield agreed: “The teachers did a fabulous job.” Hartfield, the school’s advancement director, said the school was initially placed in lockdown after the discovery of the damage, before students were released to their parents.
“I am so grateful there were no injuries and that St. Stephen’s and All Saints School have very strong and wise leadership,” said the Rt. Rev. Andy Doyle, Bishop of Texas. “We must pray for the person who carried out this act of cowardice so that they might come to understand that God’s love waits for them.”
Balke has been at St. Stephen’s since June, 2017, just months before Hurricane Harvey devastated Beaumont. “Steven is grace under fire,” said his wife, Katie.