'The building isn't the church.'
United Church of Christ minister the Rev. Sam Chamelin has heard those words before. But today they ring true. Chamelin and the congregation of Lazarus UCC in Lineboro, Md., are still a church after a major fire swept through their building the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 3, destroying the structure almost entirely.
"We say that and we know that, and that message is driven home on a day like today," Chamelin said. "The church is our home, and we've lost that. But there's a congregation here that still loves God and wants to worship."
The destruction of Lazarus UCC raised questions about how the congregation will rebuild its house of worship, and what it will do to gather together during the Christmas season. Chamelin and the membership – which is about 200 people – intend to rebuild Lazarus UCC, which was formed 160 years ago in 1853.
"What a day. Rebuilding is a hard thing to envision, and what that means, what that looks like," he said. "We have so much work in the time ahead and we'll have to see what we have and don't have."
The only structure of church building, built in 1908, still standing is the brick exterior, as the roof and the interior were gutted by the flames. The basement is also intact, but full of water, according to Chamelin.
The pastor lives just down the road from the church building, where in the early hours of Tuesday morning, at about 4:15, he and several members gathered, helpless to do anything except watch.
"Mostly the work [with the congregation] was going around to the people standing and watching. There's not much to be said," Chamelin added.
On Saturday, the congregation's second annual Hunger Run to benefit Lazarus' food pantry is scheduled, but so much is in flux now because of the fire. So far, there isn't any information about the cause of the blaze from fire investigators, though Chamelin said it's possible the fire started near the back side of the sanctuary. The congregation is also waiting for estimates on the cost of the damage.
But the rebuilding is already happening amongst the people of Carroll County. Chamelin said that "every church within a 15-mile radius has offered their facility."
There is a prayer service at the Lineboro fire hall Tuesday night, when Chamelin said he will speak about the fire and how the congregation can begin to move forward. Lazarus UCC shares its worship space with an ELCA congregation. The Rev. Marie A. Bacchiocchi, associate conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, arrived in Lineboro Tuesday morning to offer support to the congregation, and she and ELCA bishop Wolfgang Herz-Lane will join the prayer service.
"If you can't proclaim hope in Advent, I don't know when you can proclaim hope," Chamelin said. "Mary and Joseph were kicked out of their house before Christmas. What it means for us, I don't know. But those narratives can be powerful."
The Central Atlantic Conference of the UCC is setting up a fund to help with the rebuilding process.
"The sudden loss of a church building by fire can test the heart and soul of congregation," said the Rev. John R. Deckenback, conference minister of the Central Atlantic Conference. "It can either be invigorating to help plan for future or it can tear apart, and I hope they prayerfully work to knit their community going forward.
"It's a historic, beautiful, country church and a tragedy for all of us," Deckenback continued. "Those old German churches have a way to overcome. They have tremendous staying power. That's what I would expect for Lazarus."