From the ashes
After devastating fire, New York church reaches out through art, relationships
May 3, 2013
Two years ago, a lightning bolt struck Mayfield Central Presbyterian Church’s bell, burning the building to the ground.
Although the church lost nearly every material possession, members used the event as a catalyst for new beginnings and relationships.
“God walks you through any journey you go on,” said the Rev. Bonnie Orth, Mayfield’s pastor and a member of the Presbyterian Health Education and Welfare Association (PHEWA) board of directors. “We were tested in that fire but from that fire we were reborn.”
Through a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Mayfield began to create art from the ashes. Orth encouraged members to brainstorm meaningful ways to commemorate their loss.
“Think big,” she said. “Don’t be limited by what we don’t have.”
The congregation reached out to a local Amish community to create a 20-foot cross from charred ceiling beams. Next month, Mayfield and the Amish will gather for worship and an old-fashioned cross-raising celebration.
From the church’s broken stained glass windows, members collected shards of broken glass. During communion one Sunday, they laid the shards onto the communion table, forming a mosaic tabletop that will be used as the congregation’s new communion table.
“We all come to the table broken in some way, and it’s at the table we’re made whole,” Orth said.
While it was waiting for a new church building to be constructed, Mayfield held a service of lament, with members writing their laments on pieces of paper. The laments were read aloud, then dropped into a makeshift baptismal font — a punch bowl. The pieces of paper, along with church bulletins, quilting yarn and local seeds, were made into a pulp for rag paper. Once it dried, the paper was cut up and used in a service of blessing, with members writing their blessings on pieces and reading them aloud. The blessings were later used to make two art pieces — one for Mayfield to keep and one for them to pass on to another church touched by natural disaster.
Through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Mayfield got in touch with Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., which was severely damaged in a February tornado.
On May 19, Orth and her husband will travel to Mississippi to present Westminster with the art piece and a leather-bound book sharing Mayfield’s story. The book contains blank spaces for more stories, with the idea that Westminster will add its story then pass the book along to another church that has faced disaster. The book also contains postcards, so that the churches can stay in touch and see where the book has traveled.
“We’ve really learned a lot about the connectionalism of Presbyterianism through the fire,” Orth said.
When raising money for a new building, Mayfield reached out to every Presbyterian church in New York and upper New jersey. Many sent money, but even more important were the stories and prayers, Orth said. When Superstorm Sandy struck the area last October, Mayfield once again reached out to other churches, this time with its own messages of support.
“We hear so much about why the Presbyterian Church is failing,” Orth said. “We’re not failing up here.”
Mayfield held its first service in its new building on Easter Sunday — an especially fitting date because the last worship service before the fire was on Easter 2011. The new building will be officially dedicated May 5, with a mass choir singing a new anthem commissioned from Joseph Martin for the occasion.