FIRST STEPS

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN
The Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church family, having lost its meeting facility in a massive fire March 7, took its first steps toward recovery last week, including its first Sunday service in a temporary home.

About 570 people gathered at 10 a.m. Sunday in Robert C. Brown Gymnasium for a service that acknowledged the pain of their recent loss, but focused on God’s goodness and the potential for present and future renewal.

“I know you’re grieving, and I am, too,” pastor Bruce Porter told the congregation. “There’s a lot of memories we have of a place where God worked and lived and thrived. And yet, he’s in us.

“The building burned, but we’re still here-and so is God,” he said.

Porter said the loss of a meeting place has been and will be a test of faith–whether the congregation will be able to keep its focus on God rather than personal preferences for a new building.

During this time of transition, Porter challenged members to continue to love God and each other, even when the initial emotional energy wears thin.

“People are watching us, to see how we will respond,” he said.

Sunday’s service included several hymns and choruses of praise, but also the commissioning of members Dale and Teresa Regier and son Jordan as new church workers in India through the denomination’s mission board.

Sunday’s service was the congregation’s first public service since the fire, but its second gathering. Last Tuesday evening about 350 people met in the Tabor College cafeteria for a time of “connecting and informing.”

For more than two hours, the estimated 350 attenders expressed their feelings about the loss of their meeting place and recalled memories–both humorous and serious–of events held in the building, which was now left in ashes and rubble with only some exterior walls standing.

“We know in our minds that a church is not a building, it’s people,” said moderator Don Ratzlaff, who led the meeting in the absence of Porter, who was returning from a conference in California. “And a building is a building is a building–but a church is more than building to those of use who were spiritually nurtured in it.

“We have suffered a great loss,” he added. “A building that was once important and beautiful to us is now ravaged and ugly. But as I look at your faces tonight, Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church has never looker more beautiful.”

The congregation’s governing council, plus three other ministry committees, met Thursday evening in the Tabor College Library conference room to address immediate needs and longer-range issues.

At Sunday’s worship service, the congregation was informed of some of those initial plans and developments:

— the congregation will continue meeting at 10 a.m. in Brown Gymnasium until further notice; it was reported that USD 410 had offered use of its facilities for the next two years without charge, if needed.

— staff offices have been temporarily relocated in the northeast corner of main floor in the Loewen Science Building on the Tabor campus. The church’s office number (947-3144) and information line number (947-5454) have been reestablished.

— education classes will begin again on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings as soon as the coordinating committee can finalize arrangements; various meeting sites may be involved.

As for the prospect of a new building, the congregation was encouraged at its Tuesday and Sunday gatherings to be patient as leaders begin to explore options for the location of a new facility.

Darrell Driggers, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, said current zoning regulations may make it impossible for the congregation to build a new facility on its present site even if it wanted to.

The old structure violated a variety of regulations, although it was grandfathered into compliance when the current codes were approved, Driggers said.

Now that the building is destroyed, any new structure will need to adhere to those regulations, including parking and set-back requirements.

Driggers said insurance should cover the $2.3 million appraised value of the old building–but that will not come close to covering the cost of constructing a new facility.

Meanwhile, the remains of the old structure stand as a testimony to the destructive force of the March 7 fire.

Thursday morning, Middlecreek Mining Corp. of Peabody was on site to knock down the end walls of the sanctuary and a vulnerable portion of the east wall of the education wing–which were considered in imminent danger of collapse.

Once those walls were knocked down, the 100 block of Washington Street was reopened for vehicle traffic for the first time since the fire. The area has since been encircled with protective fencing and “no trespassing” signs.

Driggers said Monday the insurance company was expected to send in structural engineers Tuesday (March 16) to see if any part of the north portion of the facility can be salvaged for possible reconstruction.

“We think we know what the answer will be, but the insurance company needs to hear it from the engineers,” Driggers said.

During the week, several pieces of equipment were recovered from the church office complex, which did not burn but did sustain smoke and eventually water damage. With cleaning, it was thought some of the equipment could be used in the new offices.

The congregation also recovered some congregational records–some stored on computer hard drives and some in a church vault that was not affected by the flames but was vulnerable to water damage.

Almost all of the church’s historical records had been deposited some time ago with the archival center at Tabor College.

Also recovered were some kitchen items, a carpet mural created by Max Heinrichs Sr., the March 7 offering, and the dough-rolling machine used to make verenike for the Mennonite Relief Sale each April.

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