Malibu church vows, 'We will rise from the ashes'

Members of Malibu Presbyterian say that while their building was destroyed by fire, their church is still intact.

At a communitywide service designed to bring neighbors in crisis together, children are in abundance.

"I want to say thank you to all the firemen who kept us safe," says a little girl, before she giggles and buries her face on her mother's shoulder.

Next, the Rev. Greg Hughes, pastor of the Malibu Presbyterian Church, which burned to the ground just after dawn on the first day of wildfires here, addresses the gathering jammed into the hardwood pews of Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church.

"In Romans 12:15, Paul tells the Romans, 'Mourn with those who mourn, rejoice with those who rejoice,' " says Mr. Hughes. "And I thought to myself, 'How in the world do we do that?' I thank God that none of us were harmed, but on the other hand the building was a sacred place in the community for 60 years – my children were baptized there, my father was eulogized there, so my own soul is conflicted."

The dual theme of mourning and rejoicing is one that members have embraced as they realized that while the building burned down, their church is still intact. "We lost our building, but not our church," said Hughes on Sunday. "We're overwhelmed by letters and support from all over the globe. We will rise from the ashes."

Mark Muesse, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., has seen dozens of congregations deal with churches razed to the ground in the South, many by arson. He says the idea that a church is not a building but rather "the community of the faithful" is an idea that has deep roots both in Christian theology and history.

"Adversity provided an occasion for the church community to strengthen its sense of purpose and resolve and bring together its members in a way that would not have been possible without the experience of common loss," says Mr. Muesse. "Interestingly, when such calamities occurred, it often drew together the greater community of which the church was a part … suddenly there was an outpouring of assistance and offers of assistance by other churches."

That's certainly been true in Malibu. Area churches have sent prayers and food, and offered the loan of their own edifices. That generous spirit is something with which members of Malibu Presbyterian are entirely familiar. But usually, the congregation has been on the giving end.

Known for its outreach, Malibu Presbyterian gives 11 percent of its yearly budget to causes beyond its own congregation, according to Noralea Goodrow, the church's financial administrator. In addition to harvest festivals and Christmas teas, the church sends thousands of dollars annually to missions in several foreign countries. Members hold two donation drives each year for the homeless and provide meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

When more than 100 homes burned in Malibu in 1993, church and members were instrumental in helping families find homes and get back on their feet financially.

"This has always been a church that encourages its people to look outside the realms of Malibu," says Michael Mudgett, a pastor at Malibu Presbyterian. "We even go to Mexico to build houses for the homeless, so I am proud of it."

In the week before the fire, the church pledged $500,000 to a teen center across town in South Central Los Angeles. Officials say that despite the fire, and the fact that members aren't sure where all the money will come from to rebuild, the pledge will be honored.

"This church meant everything. It really was the backbone of this community," says Jenny Patrick, an interior designer who grew up in Malibu but is not a member of Malibu Presbyterian.

If services over the past week have been characterized by outpourings of gratitude, spoken prayers for the firefighters, remembrances, and psalms of comfort, they have also been punctuated by spontaneous outbreaks of collective humor.

"Here is a picture of the church moments after embers started a fire on the roof," said Hughes in opening Sunday's service with a brief slide show. "We've always talked about the church being a well-lit beacon on a hill, but here we carried it too far."

And in a service Thursday – open to Malibu residents and sponsored by local Episcopal, Catholic, and other churches, as well as the Jewish synagogue – one man offered a prayer aloud for animals victimized by the fires.

"I haven't seen any coyote, jackrabbits, or deer nibbling on anyone's roses," he says. "We hope all the animals are safe … and maybe nibbling on somebody else's roses on the other side of these hills."

One 25-year church member, Mike Rupp, gave a remembrance that had elements both of profound feeling and stand-up comedy.

"Over the years, I came here to talk to my heavenly Father, my Dad, if you will," said Mr. Rupp. "Sometimes, while stuck in traffic on the 405 freeway, it was hard to hold onto the idea that He still existed, but I always knew I could find Him here."

That's why the 400-plus members appear united in one cause: That is not only to rebuild the church, but to remain on the same hilltop perch where it has served Malibu and greater Los Angeles for more than six decades.

"Talk to me in two years, and I'll tell you how we did it," says Mr. Mudgett, holding a bright red hymnal as he surveyed the burned-out rubble last Thursday. Insurance money will provide a start, members say, but donations will be vital. "It will happen. It's just too important to the community."

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