One week, post-fire. Life continues

The shell of the burned out church
The shell of the burned out church, taken 6:45 PM, March 23, 2010
Euclid Avenue Congregational Church engraved into the building
Euclid Avenue Congregational Church engraved into the building

It has been a long and extraordinary week. I have had neither the time nor the inclination to update this blog until now, but I need to capture some of the events before they recede too far into memory and are lost.

By Tuesday morning last the fire at EACC was more or less under control, but only some of the exterior stone walls remained. The entire contents and interior structure of the church were destroyed. At 10:00 AM the church staff and some of the church lay leaders met at the Mount Zion United Church of Christ, our sister church near the Cleveland Veteran’s Administration hospital in University Circle, to start to discuss decisions to be made to move forward temporarily, including a place to hold Holy Week services. A representative of the church’s insurance agency was also present to discuss the church’s coverage. I had to leave the meeting shortly before 11:30 in order to get to the library for an important lunch meeting there. I confess that my mind was not on library business for the afternoon. Among other calls I received (because somehow my office number was listed and the media and others could not reach other church staff) was one from an agent from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency of the U.S. government. It turns out that the ATF investigates all church fires. I also had calls from some very pushy reporters, one of whom from the Plain Dealer I more or less hung up on.

In the evening there was a special church service and congregational meeting called for 7:00 at Mount Zion. On my way I stopped to look at the church “corpse,” because I had heard that the remaining walls would be demolished overnight. There were a number of other church members also present to view the scene, as well as a constant parade of curiosity seekers driving by.

The service was brief, with a couple of hymns (“The Church’s One Foundation” and “Amazing Grace”), some scripture readings and a prayer during which members were invited first to name one thing that they had lost in the fire, then later to name one thing they hoped for the future. After the service, there was a brief meeting in which some announcements were made: that for at least the next two Sundays we would be holding services at the former First United Methodist Church at East 30th and Euclid in downtown Cleveland; that we would not hold Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services this year. There were some questions as well, although there were not yet many answers. After the meeting there were lots of hugs and tears. There was a full array of media covering the service and meeting.

I left Mount Zion a little after 9:00 and went to get something to eat—I’d had very little all day—and by the time I headed home a little before 10:00 I could see that the remaining walls of EACC were gone. I was exhausted.

The rest of the week combined trying to do library work with figuring out what would happen next with the music at the church. I needed to decide about music for Easter Sunday and figure out how we would have a choir rehearsal this week with no space. I received many messages of support from friends, former choir members, and from others interested in the church. There were offers of hymnals, choir robes (not accepted) and offers of loans of music for the choir (accepted gratefully), as well as offers of organ practice time. I have been overwhelmed by this outpouring of compassion.

The last picture of the Wilhelm organ at EACC, taken March 17, 2010
The last picture of the Wilhelm organ at EACC, taken March 17, 2010

Although there were offers of choir rehearsal space from other churches, for this week I decided that we needed to be “family” and I hosted our regular Thursday rehearsal in my music room at home. It was good to have that sense of togetherness, even though the space is really too small for the sound that was coming out of the sixteen people assembled. People were very anxious about what would happen, and I did my best to reassure them, even though I’m not sure myself.

Throughout the week I kept thinking of pieces of music that were at the church that have some special meaning to me that can’t be replaced. Of course, the practical midwesterner in me knows that dwelling on what can’t be undone is not very productive, but I guess it’s going to happen whether I like it or not.

On Saturday the church staff and some of the lay leaders met at the First Church building to become oriented to the building and how it works. The sanctuary is vast. The organ (an older four-manual Casavant that was renovated at some point in the ’90s, I think, with a new French-style console) is quite impressive, in a totally different way from my beloved Wilhelm organ at EACC. But I keep telling myself, it’s a real pipe organ in a real church, and not an electronic keyboard in a hotel meeting room somewhere. I had about 40 minutes to practice on it—by no means not enough, but at least enough to get some idea of how to play a service on Sunday. George had driven in from DC to be with me and the EACC family for the weekend. I was glad to have him around to help keep me sane.

I managed to get it together to be at the new location by 8:30 on Sunday morning—Palm Sunday—so I had about twenty minutes to warm up on the organ. Other than the hymns and prelude (Max Reger’s “Benedictus”) I didn’t have to play much else, because the church’s Gospel Choir was also performing, along with the Chancel Choir, which sang Daniel Moe’s “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Since we had never sung in the space before, nor sung with the organ, I too the easy way out and accompanied them on the piano. The acoustic for the singers is quite strange and will take getting used to, as will singing in a much larger space. The temptation is to over-sing, but it’s not necessary. Despite everyone’s anxiety, the service went quite well, and there was a large crowd, including a panoply of media, who were discreet during the service.

Following the service I was interviewed at the organ by Leon Bibb from Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, Channel 5 WEWS. Leon is not only the evening news anchor but also an EACC member. He covered the fire from the beginning, and his coverage has been unfailingly tasteful. It must have been incredibly difficult for him to maintain his professional persona while being personally involved with the circumstances. In that we share something—despite my personal grief, it is my responsibility to help the choir and members of the congregation in their worship of God, so I have to set aside my feelings, at least for a while, to accomplish that goal.

In the afternoon, after George left for Washington, I was able to finally give myself the chance to unwind. I only wanted to sleep. My failed attempt to read resulted in a four hour nap.

So we have made it through Week One, post EACC. It has been difficult, but the outpouring of concern has been a blessing. Maybe it will get easier. I hope so.

2 thoughts on “One week, post-fire. Life continues

  1. Dear Tim,

    So sorry to hear about this tragic event.

    Please read the definition below and reflect on it. I believe it is an apt descriptor of all farm boys.

    resilient |riˈzilyənt|
    adjective
    (of a substance or object) able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed. See note at flexible .
    • (of a person or animal) able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions : the fish are resilient to most infections.

    ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Latin resilient- ‘leaping back,’ from the verb resilire (resile ).

    Resilience is a term that has been borrowed from the more exact sciences and adopted by psychology. When used by psychologists it refers to the ability to recover from trauma or crisis. The term has generated much interest on the part of research psychologists (Bonnano, 2004) and has been used in developing programs to help people cope in the aftermath of traumatic events (Building Resilience Interventions, Baum, et al, 2009).

    I wish you the best,

    Pat Meehan

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