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.
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.
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.
To be continued…