“I am the church. You are the church. We are the church together.”
The words were sung rousingly by some and through tears by others as the Rev. John Baker strummed a guitar under a blazing sun.
At the Church of the Redeemer in Longport, the burnt-out shell stood in the background of the service held on a small lawn area, the morning after the historic building was destroyed by a fire sparked by an intense thunderstorm.
About 30 people came, most sitting on lawn chairs, wearing sunhats and shorts, some drinking cold water from a thermos. They asked for prayer and thanks, grateful for the community, thankful no one was injured, but devastated by the loss of a building that had such significance in their lives.
Baker said as the service began that initially he had trouble thinking about writing a sermon, but he realized the sermon would write itself.
“The church will live on, wherever it is,” he said.
Brian Dearnley, 30, of Philadelphia, sat with his wife, Meghan, occasionally wiping away tears. The Dearnleys were married in the church in September, and Brian Dearnley said he had been attending summer services there his entire life.
“It’s a time to acknowledge the loss before getting ready for whatever is next. There will be something next,” he said of what the service meant to him.
About 2 p.m. Saturday, Baker said, he was directing firefighters to look under various pieces of rubble, hoping that they could salvage various items. An impromptu altar was set up Sunday on a wooden table with two charred flags nearby. Baker read from a damaged prayer book and said that wherever he opened the page to would be what he read.
He then handed out a charred collection plate, which quickly was filled with large bills.
During the service, parishioners began developing ideas of how to move forward and to find a way to grieve the building.
Kate Subranni, whose husband, Tom, is the chairman of the board of directors, said she hadn’t seen the damage in daylight. She and Tom Subranni were at the fire early Saturday, watching flames shoot out of the roof.
“I hadn’t seen it in person. It just totally upsets me when I see it because of everything it’s meant to us for all these years,” Kate Subranni said. Her daughter also was married at the church in September, a week after the Dearnleys were.
An insurance engineer was at the church Sunday morning as officials were trying to determine how fast the church’s tower could be torn down as Atlantic City Electric crews were waiting to install a new pole and connect electricity to the buildings on the south end of Longport.
Tom Subranni said early Saturday, as the fire raged, that services would be held Sunday no matter what. Afterward, he said the service was proof that the church would live on.
“It just proved that a church is more than bricks and mortar. Everyone knows that, but you don’t realize it until you see it, the feeling of the love of everyone here on the lawn,” he said.
That feeling is what Baker said he wanted everyone to feel and punctuated that message with the second verse of a hymn.
“This is the verse that the 4 and 5 year olds can’t get but I think you’ll understand today,” Baker said. “The church is not a building. The church is not a steeple. The church is not a resting place. The church is the people.”
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