Fire in a Church

I found myself alone in a church with an arsonist last month.

The stress of the day sits heavily in my chest, disturbing my sleep and leaving me exhausted and, at times, weepy.

I lead a team of volunteers serving unhoused and vulnerable women in downtown San Jose. We rent space at the back of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. Our Lifted Spirits program offers clothing and hygiene, a hot lunch, and, most of all, support to women in a non-judgemental environment.

Lifted Spirits Mannequins dressed in donated clothes

As I prepared to leave for the day, just half an hour behind our last volunteer, I heard what turned out to be a distant smoke alarm. I dismissed it at first as it seemed far away, but then I smelled smoke.

Entering the main corridor just a short distance away, I encountered a man I had never seen before. He stood in the hallway enveloped in white smoke, holding something in both hands. He turned to me and said something incoherent. I fled.

The corridor where I encountered the suspect showing smoke and water damage

I returned to our serving area, locked the door, then fumbled to call 911. Unfortunately, my phone wouldn’t work, or more accurately, my fingers couldn’t seem to work the phone. I tried clearing the screen, searched for the 911 number that I knew had to be there, and finally managed to call for help.

As the dispatcher picked up, I saw the man from the hallway exit our building, then walk along the enclosed patio area where we serve our clients.

I blurted out on the phone with the dispatcher: “I’m alone in a church with the man I think set the fire, and I’m scared.”

Knowing he was outside and fearing his return, I fled through the smoky corridor to the front of the church. Small puffs of white smoke emanated from the sanctuary’s roof.

A couple of passersby had stopped and also called 911. As the engines arrived at the scene, I remained on the phone. Then I ran to the street to tell one of the firefighters that I didn’t want the suspected arsonist to get away.

St. Paul’s UMC fire, June 8, 2022

To be continued…

35 thoughts on “Fire in a Church

  1. Oh Alys
    What a nightmare. So frightening. I am so very sorry that you had to go through this traumatic event. I know you will work through this in time and that you have a great support network. Please know that I am thinking of you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Alys, although I had heard about this from you prior, while reading this my stomach was tense, so I can’t imagine how scared YOU we’re living it! I’m happy you were safe and hope in time your trauma subsides. Sending you a big HUG also.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for following along, Maria, and thank you for that hug as well. I’m sending one right back your way. It’s been a difficult time, but each day brings about new reflections. All in due time. xo


  3. Oh, my, Alys. How frightening a nightmare for you. I can’t help but think how your presence averted catastrophe. While scary and traumatic for you as it was, you most likely saved the church. Let’s hope the arsonist is caught. Sending you hugs for strength. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words, Eliza. As traumatic as it was, in the end no one was hurt *and* the fire department arrived quickly. That said, the sanctuary is a total loss. The back of the building, also the area our non-profit rents, is uninhabitable until they clean the smoke, asbestos and lead. Sigh.


  4. Oh Alys, sweetheart, what an awful thing to have happened to you. No wonder you are traumatised. What a terrible person (much worse names are going through my head!) to attack a church and a charity that gives so much good to the world. Take the time and support you need to get back to the beautiful person you are. ~many hugs~

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your kind words, Anne and for your virtual hugs. It’s been reported that the suspected arsonist was also unhoused. In my brief encounters with him in and out of the building when they apprehended him, it seems clear that he is mentally unwell. The entire situation is tragic. xo


  5. I hope you are getting some professional counselling. Frightening and dangerous episodes like this can take root in the mind unless you are helped to weed it out. Ask me how I know. I wish I could offer a hand, a shoulder, an ear. I am sure you have many friends who are closer at hand. Big hugs from a faraway friend for a very brave lady.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kate. I am. I work with a therapist very week to ten days, and it’s a great help. I’m married to a wonderful man, and I have equally amazing friends. I”m sorry to hear of your trauma and the delay in weeding it out. I hope you are doing better. Thanks for that hug and for your ongoing support. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh hon, that was beyond traumatic! I can’t even imagine. The adrenaline rush could have been why you couldn’t dial, it can freeze you. You did all the right things and should be so proud of yourself. You could very well be suffering with PTSD. I think Kate C is right, a professional is the best one to talk to. Sounds like he was impaired? Do you think? Thank goodness he left and you were able to escape to safety. Arms around you 💗💗

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello dear friend, I am seeing a counselor weekly and she assures me that I’m processing things properly, and that it will take time. I have ups and downs, and as you know, otther things on my proverbial emotional plate. I’m pretty sure the man that set the fire is not in his right mind. I’m glad he’s off the street and I hope he gets real help as well. Everything about this situation is tragic. I can’t wait to see you. xo

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Fire in a Church: Part Two – Gardening Nirvana

  8. Pingback: Fire in a Church: Conclusion – Gardening Nirvana

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