From the exterior, the damage is barely noticeable. It looks like St. Luke has always looked from the stop sign at the end of the Crawford Avenue exit of Calhoun Expressway.
There are, however, clues that indicate something’s not quite right.
The Christmas wreath is still attached to the Tiffany-blue front door, but the upper corner of that door is charred, with black trails extending up. A screen dangles precariously from a second-story window, barely hanging on.
The façade of the church still looks relatively normal, but a walk through those blue doors proves that a recent fire did a significant amount of damage to the 150-year-old sanctuary.
“This is the choir loft,” said St. Luke Director of Outreach and Music Marsha Jones, showing a Metro Spirit reporter and photographer the damage. “They think the fire started on the opposite wall in the light box, because it’s just burned down to the ground. It’s just destroyed.”
What firefighters believe was an electrical fire began in the early morning hours of December 28; a passing motorist saw smoke and called it in. Miraculously, the sanctuary was the only part of the church to be damaged by flames. Unfortunately, it is completely destroyed. And the remains are heartbreaking.
The pulpit lies on its side, propped up on the armrest of the kneeling rail. Under it, on the kneeling part of the kneeling rail, sits the altar Bible, its edges blackened and curled. The Bible is open and, fittingly, Romans 8:18 reads, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
“Well, I believe I need to take a picture of that,” Jones says, when she realizes the significance of the verse.
Next to the kneeling rail sits the church’s piano. It still carries a tune, although not a very pretty one. Music for “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” still sits on it, a reminder of the church’s last service on Christmas day.
Another reminder, the Christmas tree, is also destroyed, the top half of it looking like it might dissolve into dust at the slightest touch. A lone Chrismon ornament, handmade by Judith Snyder from Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church, still hangs onto a limb.
“She made 60 ornaments for us after she had a heart attack and was sitting at home,” Jones said. “A year’s worth of work is gone.”
Also gone is Jones’ accumulation of church music.
“I’m the church musician and I probably have 40 years of music sitting in this sanctuary. It’s gone,” she said. “And I didn’t really think about it until Wednesday night. I was laying in the bed and I just went, ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no.’”
The loss of a church is devastating to its members, but, to the people of Harrisburg, St. Luke is much more than a church. It is something of a community center.
“We have more people coming through the doors during the week than we do coming to church on Sunday,” Jones laughed. “It’s kind of crazy.”
It wasn’t always like that, however.
Jones has been with St. Luke for almost a decade. She came from Trinity on the Hill, where she was director of missions and outreach. The two churches may only be separated by a few miles, but they are worlds apart in every other way. Jones, who had just turned 50, was looking for something new.
“I rode through this neighborhood almost every day,” she said, “and once I started actually looking at the people who lived here as I drove through, I started feeling pretty frustrated.”
She contacted St. Luke and joined the staff soon after.
“I think they were ready. St. Luke, at that time, I think had dwindled down to about 12 members, so they knew that if they didn’t make some changes they would have to close the doors of the church,” she said. “So we had a conversation and I said, ‘Would you be willing to allow this church to become a place for children’s programming, neighborhood outreach, open up the doors and let folks come in?’ And they said, ‘We have to’ and so they did. And everything changed.”
Now, St. Luke is home to Kids with a Future that meets Monday-Wednesday of each week to provide tutoring, a computer lab and dinner to elementary- and middle-school students. A Cub Scout troop meets at the church on Thursday nights, as does a men’s group open to neighborhood residents. Westobou Montessori School meets in a classroom at St. Luke’s five days a week and the Veggie Truck Farmers Market started at the church. The farmers market now meets at a nearby park and, out of it, Grow Harrisburg and Icebox Urban Farm were formed.
The church also has a dance studio in its upstairs space where free yoga classes are held, they allow the neighborhood association to meet there, and had a hand in helping open Harrisburg Family Healthcare, a family clinic in the neighborhood that’s open three days a week.
“A lot of things have grown out of St. Luke’s and the church has been here for 150 years,” she said. “When the Ezekiel Harris House was open and the canal had barges up and down it, this church was sitting here. It’s seen a lot.”
St. Luke does all these things, Jones said, to serve its community.
“As a church, our whole purpose is to serve this community, the people who live here, especially children and vulnerable folks, and there are a lot of children and a lot of vulnerable folks in Harrisburg,” Jones said. “There’s a high incidence of heart disease, diabetes and then lots of folks, for whatever reason — well, because it’s one of the cheapest places to live and there are a lot of blind eyes turned — there’s a lot of people with mental illness, drug addictions, alcohol addictions. There are just a lot of needy folks who live in our community.”
“At the same time, we also have a lot of people who are very capable and very skilled,” she continued. “Not the Christmas day service at St. Luke’s, but the Sunday before, we had two of our kids, who were the first people in their families to graduate from high school, graduate here that Sunday. That was part of our service was them graduating from high school. That’s the goal, to incorporate, not separate, your everyday life from your belief. We try to be as seamless as possible so every day is a walk, not just Sunday morning.”
Because Harrisburg is a relatively poor community, judging the church’s membership is difficult. Jones says that, contrary to when she first joined, 70 percent of the congregation now are residents of the community. On any given Sunday, St. Luke will have 50-90 people in the pews.
“The congregation is very transitional. It is not unusual at all for us to have a family who are here for a year or two and then they fall off the face of the earth and, three months later, they’ll show back up and say they had to move out in the middle of the night,” Jones explained. “There are just all those issues when you live in poverty and you live day to day. Well, guess what? When you serve a community who lives day to day, you live day to day with them.”
What St. Luke doesn’t do is offer services like clothes closets or food pantries.
“The reason we don’t have those things is because it is impossible to actually have an equitable and honest relationship with a person if you are always the giver and they are always the taker. It’s impossible. And so we try our best not to have those kinds of relationships,” she said. “Now, if I have a family member who has a fire or for whatever reason there’s a bad situation and they call, I’m going to help as much as I can and the church is too. But those are people we have established relationships with. It’s very much saying this is my brother, this is my sister. Sometimes that means tough love and saying no, and sometimes that means bending over backwards. But it always means, always means forgiving and moving forward in the relationship in a loving way as much as possible.”
So where does St. Luke’s go from here? Well, the church staff is still waiting on word from the insurance company, but they know the sanctuary isn’t the only part of the church that will need repairs.
“We know we’re probably going to have to be out of the building for six months,” Jones said. “We know that the sanctuary is going to have to be rebuilt from the ground up. We’re pretty sure, because all these walls are plaster and they hold smoke, that they have to be torn down, the ceilings torn down, all the insulation taken out, all the wiring replaced. It’s going to have to be gutted. So it’s going to take time.”
While they’re hoping (and praying) that the insurance will cover most of the damage, they’re still not sure. In the meantime, while they try and find places to hold all the programs and classes St. Luke’s offers, a Go Fund Me page has been set up to take donations.
It’s a very stressful situation but, now that she’s over the initial shock, Jones says it can also be a great opportunity.
“Here’s the good news: We’ve always been poor,” she laughed. “Since I’ve worked here, we’ve never had any money and so it’s not that shocking. We really have worked with little or nothing for a very long time now so we’re kind of used to that, but we are used to having a great facility to work in so that’s going to take some getting used to. But this is also an opportunity to make the facility better and see how it can serve the neighborhood. And it may give us an opportunity to do some things in the building that we couldn’t do before.”
“I think if Jesus was here, he’d be saying, ‘Okay, what you need, how do you want to do this?’” she continued. “We’re not the community center for the neighborhood, we’re a church, but the question is how does the church serve the community and our members and this is a good time to look at that, to seriously look at that.”
So the St. Luke’s that returns may look a little different from the St. Luke’s of the past. And not just in appearance; in function. While Jones is excited at the future of the church, she’s also gratified to see how the neighborhood has reacted in the midst of this tragedy.
“Yes, my initial reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’” she said. “But then, pretty quickly, people started showing up. People who live in the neighborhood were walking over and hugging and saying, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. What can I do?’ And I think that was the thing that touched me the most was our neighbors coming over and saying, ‘We love you, we’re here, tell me how I can help’ and realizing that the church has established itself as a good neighbor and that we’re loved.”
And that got her to thinking something else.
“Pretty quickly I thought, ‘You know? What if every church burned down? What if all the churches just burned to the ground? What would we do then?’” she said. “Well, then you’re forced to remember, really remember, and it’s so easy to forget, that the church is not a building. It is not a building, it is a community. As beautiful as the sanctuary is, that’s not who serves this community. It’s the people who enter the sanctuary.”
For the foreseeable future, St. Luke United Methodist Church will meet for Sunday morning worship services at 11 a.m. at Lamar-Milledge Elementary School. Westobou Montessori School and other programs that usually meet at St. Luke will resume as soon as space can be arranged. To donate to the St. Luke Fire Recovery Fund, visit gofundme.com/stlukeharrisburg. The church is currently without power, so to contact the church staff, visit facebook.com/stlukeharrisburg.