WOULD YOU TELL US how you are feeling right now?” The question was asked as a bright light was shone into my eyes, and a microphone thrust into my face. The question was asked by a TV news reporter. It was 2:30 a.m. on Sunday, April 26. I was standing in the parking lot of my church, with hundreds of other people, watching it burn.
How did I feel? The truth is, I was actually quite numb. I don’t think I was feeling very much at all. I was stunned. It all seemed so unreal. It was impossible to sort out the flurry of conflicting thoughts and feelings.
Years of dreaming, testing, planning, and fund-raising had just last summer brought us to the point where we could begin construction of a new, enlarged centre for worship and ministry. It is impossible to describe the logistics and calisthenics that were involved in getting to the point of construction, dealing with a building that was more than 150 years old. In fact, we had been told on several occasions that what we wanted to do was impossible.
But the money had been raised, the permits obtained and construction begun. Now, with the project nearing completion, the excitement in the congregation was palpable. Soon we would be leaving our temporary worship space in a nearby school to enter the next phase of ministry in a renewed and enlarged church building. We were so close we could almost taste it.
But now everything had changed. I had been awakened from a deep sleep shortly after midnight by the ringing of the telephone. Barely conscious, I heard a voice saying, “Mr. Percy, I thought you might want to know that your church is on fire.” I was wide awake at once. Kathy and I leapt from our bed, threw on some clothes and jumped in the car. Driving towards the church I was desperately hoping that this was a prank or at worst, just a minor incident that wouldn’t cause too much damage.
But even in the dark we could see huge clouds of black smoke rising in the night sky, and as we turned the corner we saw the sky lit bright orange with the flames. It was quickly apparent that the destruction would be total; nothing from the new or the old would be left.
Groups of parishioners gathered in various configurations, staring in disbelief at the spectacular blaze; hugging each other, crying, praying. Hazel McCallion, the indefatigable mayor of Mississauga and faithful member of this congregation for over 45 years brought us coffee as we shivered in the cold night air.
At 8 a.m. we gathered on the parking lot with the members of our 8 o’clock congregation and, as the firemen continued to douse the smoking rubble, we held hands and said prayers. At 9:15 a.m. a stunned congregation gathered in the school gymnasium. Just before the service began our regional bishop, Ann Tottenham, came in. She had another engagement that morning that couldn’t be cancelled but she had gone out of her way to join us for just a few minutes and to offer consolation and care. Her mere presence bolstered the congregation. She will never know just how important that short visit was.
Beyond the numbness, my overwhelming sensations were of compassion and grief. Grief especially for the volunteers who had put thousands of hours of loving and highly skilled work into planning and managing this project. For them, this had truly been a labour of love; love for Christ, love for Christ’s church, and love for the ministry of this church in this community. These volunteers had poured themselves into this project for the sake of the Gospel.
And compassion for this congregation; truly one of the great congregations in this country. These people are deeply committed Christians, zealous followers of Jesus, passionate about their own discipleship and ministry and passionate about the corporate ministry and witness of their church. Some of the stories of the way they have sacrificed for this project would bring tears to your eyes.
None of us are in danger of confusing a building, even this building, with the true nature of the church and its ministry, but it is surely not wrong to grieve the loss of this building; both its historical aspects and the dedication with which we were refitting it for future ministry.
The Scriptures tell us there is a time to mourn, and for this congregation now is such a time. We were fortunate to have the British evangelist Michael Green as our preacher the Sunday following the fire. In a remarkable, truly inspired sermon, Michael reminded us that even though we mourn, and that it is both legitimate and important to do so, as Christians we do not mourn as those without hope. He then pointed us to the vision of our future ministry that will rise from these ashes. At the end of his sermon, visibly shaken, Michael sat down and wept; the congregation rose with a standing ovation. I don’t think I have ever witnessed a standing ovation to a sermon before.
Well, now the demolition crew has been in and knocked down everything that was left standing, and the insurance adjusters are doing their work. We are beginning to think ahead and seek God’s guidance on the best way to proceed. The local community has rallied to our support and is initiating various fund-raising ventures to offer us practical support.
And every day, cards and phone calls come from well-wishers both in and outside the Christian community. I am still a bit numb from it all, but we are moving forward with God’s help, with marvellous lay leadership and with encouragement and support from our bishops and other Christian leaders.
Please pray with us and for us that in spite of this tragedy, and perhaps even through it, that God will be glorified in the ministry of the congregation of Trinity Anglican Church, Streetsville, Ont. Pray that even as we seek to rise from the ashes and rubble, we might know the peace that passes understanding, and that we might find a deep and lasting joy in God’s presence and service.