Six weeks ago, I found myself at the back of a church with a man I didn’t know. Within seconds I realized he had set the church sanctuary on fire, before traveling along the ambulatory to the hallway near me. When I encountered him in the hall, he had two lighters in his hands and he was surrounded by smoke, but it didn’t wholly register at the time.
A distant smoke alarm and the smell of smoke drew me out into the hallway; however, adrenaline sent me running for safety.
That man is the suspect in the St. Paul’s UMC fire. The sanctuary of the church is beyond repair. They estimate close to two years to rebuild it.
Lifted Spirits has been serving vulnerable clients from rented rooms at the back of the church. Although those rooms didn’t sustain fire damage, they are now closed due to smoke, asbestos, and lead contamination. The building is without power as well.
Asbestos can’t be easily washed out of clothes, and professional remediation costs are prohibitive.
Our entire inventory is gone.
My dear friends, along with other supporters in the community, rallied quickly. As a result, we’ve received donations of men’s and women’s t-shirts, some shorts, and new socks, underwear, and hygiene items. Friends have also donated gift cards and cash so we can purchase items as needed.
Before the fire, I had set up canopies and washable rugs and tables in the outdoor serving area. This area provides a shady place to sit and relax. In addition, I’ve started serving lemonade and scones, a welcome treat for people coming in off the streets.
I rented a portable storage unit (PODS or Portable on demand Storage), bought some shelves and plastic bins. The POD provides 128 square feet of surface space and vertical space from shelves. We were operating with 1,900 square feet indoors.
I’ve been emptying a shed to allow us some extra storage. We donated fifty like-new chairs since it would cost more to store them long-term than to replace them. It feels good to pass them on to another non-profit. One of our board members agreed to keep the Christmas items, and we offered the remaining contents to those in need.
Lifted Spirits has weathered many storms in the four-plus years of my tenure. First, I started volunteering in the clothing boutique and eventually became the lead volunteer. Then, I spent three years as Board Vice-chair and poured my heart and soul into every aspect of our programs.
The church that started Lifted Spirits sold the property out from under us. Then the pandemic hit, stopping the respite portion of our program. Finally, last year, the new developer gave us four months to move, and we landed at St. Paul’s UMC in the eleventh hour. Then eight months to the day, the sanctuary went up in flames, and we find ourselves renting a fenced parking lot.
We serve our clients in the middle of the day. The summer temps are high and the overhead sun heats the blacktop surface where we operate. It takes an hour to set everything up. As a further complication, ants quickly invaded the food pantry while lingering soot drifted down from the church.
It’s hard not to feel discouraged. The program’s future is once again uncertain. Most days, I wilt in the heat. We leave exhausted at the end of the shift, lucky to have homes where we can retreat.
In the end, that’s why I continue to show up. But, that said, it’s not easy.