By Stan Friedman
MINNEAPOLIS, MN (July 12, 2013) – Arson is being blamed for a fire that destroyed the sanctuary of Community Covenant Church late Thursday night, but Pastor Luke Swanson said this afternoon that the incident will be an opportunity for the church to show how Christians can respond with love and resiliency.
One or more intruders broke in through a church window and apparently used an accelerant to set fire to the sanctuary’s grand piano, which was reduced to ashes, Swanson said. Flames scorched part of the baptistery and scorched a portion of the ceiling.
Heat from the flames melted all of the church’s sound equipment, Swanson said. The entire first floor sustained smoke damage and is covered with soot.
Swanson said church members who saw smoke coming from the building around 11:30 called the fire department, which arrived roughly 10 minutes later. “Had the parishioners not seen the smoke, the whole place would have gone up,” he said.
Some adults and children who had met earlier during a vacation Bible school were in the building until 9 p.m., Swanson said. The VBS is being held in partnership with Sanctuary Covenant Church.
Racial epithets were spray-painted on the church building. Community Covenant has an average attendance of 200 and is 70 percent African American. “There was a lot of foul language and use of the N-word,” Swanson said.
Swanson said arsonists had set fire to the building in the 1960s. “They didn’t like our congregation then, and there are people who don’t like it now.”
A sign on the front door of the church reads “Community Covenant Church—A place where everyone is welcome.” Swanson noted that the vandals had painted racial slurs over it on Thursday night.
“To think that someone would deface that with hate speech—well, it won’t work,” he said.
Swanson said he already had painted over all the graffiti before the news media arrived. “I didn’t want to give whoever did this the satisfaction of seeing it on TV.”
In an email to the congregation earlier in the day, he wrote, “As we learned this week with the children at VBS, we can stand strong in Jesus. Community Covenant is united in Jesus and we will clean up and rebuild. We will also pray for those who persecute us.”
This afternoon he added, “I think the real story is we’ve been a worshiping community for 65 years in a low-income neighborhood, and we are going to continue being a worshiping community and salt and light.”
The church still plans to hold its VBS family picnic on the grassy lot next to the church tonight. Minnehaha Academy donated its portable sound system for the event as well as Sunday’s service, which also will be held next to the church.
Covenant churches throughout the area have pledged to help the congregation, Swanson said. Pastors across the country who had heard about the blaze also have been calling to offer support.
Assistant fire chief Cherie Penn told local news media that eight other fires were set between 12:27 and 12:57 a.m. Friday. A vehicle, trash cans, branches, and a fence were charred. No injuries have been reported.
Authorities have asked the community for assistance in finding whoever set the fire.