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Blessings arise from the ashes

A rainbow Noah's Ark mural in the church nursery survived the blaze.

After arson, Tualatin church relies on faith, many friends



CNNW publisher

TUALATIN – When Pastor Nathan Brandt four months ago saw the smoke from a full four miles away, and knew it was coming from his church, his first reaction, of course, was concern for the safety of others.

“I’m very thankful that no one was hurt,” said Brandt, pastor for the past 10 years of the 34-year-old Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregation that lost much of its church to arson.

“No one was inside, and buildings can be replaced.”

But as Brandt arrived in the early morning hours of March 19 and saw crews battling the blaze, his initial numbness and shock gave way to another realization — that even though buildings can indeed be replaced, it’s not an easy nor quick process.

“I thought, ‘Man, this is going to mean a lot of meetings,’’’ he quipped.

Brandt knows well what church construction involves. It was only three years ago that Living Savior built a large new sanctuary as an addition to the church’s approximately 30-year-old building. But the extensive damage from the fire now meant the church not only had to find temporary homes for its worship services, offices and preschool, but now also had to assess the long-range viability of its damaged building.

The three-alarm fire drew 17 fire trucks and about 60 firefighters from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Lake Oswego Fire Department and Portland Fire & Rescue. Two teens were arrested that afternoon as suspects in the blaze.

Although a final damage figure has not yet been determined, Brandt said estimates are close to $2 million. While the goal now is for the sanctuary to be repaired and reoccupied as soon as September, the rest of the structure will likely need to be rebuilt, said Brandt.

He estimates that after insurance settlements, the church will need to raise at least a half-million dollars to complete full repairs.

But while the blaze was serious enough to bring tears to the eyes of many in the 600 or so who attend the church, it also has produced unexpected blessings, according to Brandt.

They include:

•the congregation’s resilience under challenging circumstances. Only two days after the fire, Living Savior went ahead and held its regularly scheduled Lent service, not in the building, but simply outside under a canopy in the snow.

And even though it has been holding its worship services at Tualatin Elementary and High Schools, attendance at Living Savior has actually increased since the fire, said Brandt

•the congregation’s adaptability to change and also its diversity in expertise and knowledge. For example, one member of the church works for the local school district and was instrumental in arranging for the public schools to be available for the worship services.

•how many friends the church has in the local community. So many people and agencies came forward to offer help, said Brandt. As a result, the 90-student preschool is now housed at Triumphant King Lutheran Church in Lake Oswego; numerous meetings and classes are temporarily held at Tualatin Presbyterian Church; larger events such as a youth auction and the preschool graduation have been housed at Rolling Hills Community Church; and choir practice and other meetings are at Grace Community Church. The Community Warehouse in Tualatin is subleasing office space to Living Savior, and the local Plumbers & Steamfitters Union Hall was also offered for worship and La-Z-Boy Furniture offered meeting space.

“We’ve gotten to meet a lot of people,” said Brandt. “It’s almost as if the Lord kicked us out of the building.”

The congregation also has experienced the blessing of extending forgiveness toward the two 13-year-old boys who burglarized the church. One of them pleaded guilty to setting the fire; the church was torched in an effort to cover up their fingerprints, according to Brandt. He said one of the boys had no ties to the church, and the other was connected to a Boy Scout troop that has met at Living Savior.

In May, one of the boys was sentenced by Washington County Juvenile Court Judge Michele Rini to the Oregon Youth Authority, the state’s juvenile detention department, for up to 11 years until his 25th birthday. However, she recommended the boy be transferred to St. Mary’s Home for Boys, a residential treatment center in Beaverton for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed teens.

The boy had faced charges of second-degree burglary, first-degree arson and theft. As part of a plea agreement, the burglary and theft charges were dismissed.

During his sentencing, the boy made a brief statement to the court, expressing what Brandt described as “deep sorrow” over what he had done.

The other boy pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary and was sentenced June 11 to up to five years probation. Arson charges against the teen were dropped.

“We have prayed for the well-being of these boys and their families,” said Brandt, who added that the church had been advised not to have direct communication with the teens or their families while their cases were pending.

Brandt termed the fire overall “a new experience” in his years of pastoral work and “something I hadn’t planned for.”

But he said it is such times of crisis that a church can truly demonstrate what it believes.

“The Gospel prepares people for this,” he said. “It’s a time to live out what you’ve been teaching and preaching.”

The whole incident has also provided Brandt more than one topic for his sermons since March.