In Longport, a service amid the remains of a church destroyed by fire

Pastor John Baker conducts Sunday service next to the Church of the Redeemer in Longport, which was destroyed by fire sparked by lightning during the severe weekend Shore storm.
Pastor John Baker conducts Sunday service next to the Church of the Redeemer in Longport, which was destroyed by fire sparked by lightning during the severe weekend Shore storm. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 03, 2012

LONGPORT, N.J. - Burned and tattered, the Episcopal and American flags were nonetheless set in place on either side of the makeshift altar.

The wooden offering plate was damaged. The silver chalice had been dug out of the rubble by firefighters. Most of the prayer books were destroyed, but one with a few unscorched pages would constitute the Gospel reading.

With both the sparkling blue waters of the bay and the badly charred historic church and tower in their view, two dozen members of the Church of the Redeemer in Longport came together Sunday morning to pray on a small lawn beside the remains of their house of worship, destroyed during the violent storm that ravaged parts of the Jersey Shore early Saturday.

"We did church like we would have done," proclaimed an emotional pastor, John Baker, clutching his guitar, the strains of the congregation's singing of the closing hymn,  "Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God," with its echoing chorus of Alleluia hanging in the air along with the faint smell of smoke and burnt wood.

The church's beloved nautical-theme, stained-glass windows made by Willet Studio now just a memory, the congregation sat on a collection of dining and lawn chairs set out on the spot of lawn next to the 104-year-old Spanish mission revival building, gutted by a fire sparked by ferocious lightning.

They were guided to their seats past police barricades.

"I told some policeman down here he was an usher for our service," Baker told the gathering. "People will come wondering how to get to church, and it's your job to welcome them and help them find their way in. And he said, 'Good, we can do that.' "

As they sat on the lawn between the rectory and the remains of the landmark church, many congregants offered tearful prayers while birds chirped.

"I pray for the priests who will lead us now and in the past."

"I pray for all the people that fought the night of the fire."

"I pray for the best neighbor any neighbor could ever wish to have."

"I pray that no one was hurt and . . . it will be rebuilt."

"I pray for all the love that is felt whenever we approach this place."

Meghan and Brian Dearnley of Philadelphia brought photos of their wedding at the church and sat tearfully during and after the service, hugging in the shadow of its remains. "It felt very real to be here, wearing sun screen and flip flops, in random beach chairs," Meghan Dearnley said. "I am the church. You are the church. It was very meaningful."

Yet it was the loss of that beautiful unique physical church, perched at 20th and Atlantic Avenues, a stretch of Longport barely more than a block wide, that still weighed heavily. Brian Dearnley said it was painful to think of the stained-glass windows. "They had a beautiful nautical theme - squid, octopi. Now, it's a melted coke bottle. It's hard to imagine it being the same."

Baker tried to reassure them with the idea that "Christianity is about what you do when something happens. The message of today is all about new life and hard times."

He told of finding a substitute Gospel reading for the service.

"I went wondering about a reading for this morning, a Gospel reading," he told the gathering. "I went to the garage where I knew we'd stacked some books that the firemen hauled out. And I said I'm just going to open this book and something good's going to happen. And one of the few undamaged pieces was this wonderful Emmaus story, so this too comes out of the predicament and place we have been."

The story, he said, was just right.

"It's in the unburned pages," he said, offering both a literal description and a simple truth of the day. "It's people meeting Jesus in a new place after hard times. That's the message of the whole Judeo-Christian tradition. When temples get destroyed, the people go on."

Baker said he chose to end the service with the Alleluia hymn for both practical and spiritual reasons.

This hymn, with its one-word chorus, did not require organ, paper or books. It worked nicely with his guitar. "It's an Easter song of resurrection," he said. "The Alleluia is a celebration prayer to God. You say that even in the face of bad stuff."

Baker said he had conveyed to the top of the Episcopal hierarchy the wish of the congregation to rebuild. "I said, 'Bishop, they want to rebuild.' He said, 'Good.'"

Some of their hymns seemed heartbreakingly appropriate. "I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry," went the opening of the lilting  "Here I Am, Lord."

Another verse - "I, the Lord of wind and flame" - hauntingly drove home the tragedy.

"When you look at that church, it was painful," said B.J. Netter-Schwartz of Lafayette Hill and Longport. "To gather today and to grieve today and to know we have a future means all the world."

Still, it was the memory of those unique Willet stained-glass windows - with their bubbles, ropes and shells - that seemed so painful to her, the empty windows in the tower baring the loss. "The inside of the church was wooden, with a curved ceiling," she said. "You felt like you were literally in a ship. Now the place is in the hearts of the people."


Contact Amy S. Rosenberg at 609-823-0453 or arosenberg@phillynews.com and on twitter @amysrosenberg.

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