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Congregation 'Devastated' After Fire Guts Historic New York Church

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We have some sad news to report from New York City, where a fire has destroyed Middle Collegiate Church. It's in the East Village, and it's a church whose history dates back to the city's earliest days, even before the founding of the country. The church's current building, which dates to 1892, might be best known as the home of the New York Liberty Bell. But the congregation, which dates back to the 18th century and is now both affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church in America, is also known for its diversity, inclusiveness and activism.

The Reverend Jacqueline J. Lewis is the senior minister at Middle Church, as it's known. She held virtual services this morning, as she has been doing throughout the coronavirus pandemic, and she is with us now.

Reverend Lewis, thank you so much for being with us, although I'm so sorry it's under these circumstances.

JACQUELINE J LEWIS: Michel, I'm so glad to be able to talk with you. And I'm sorry as well for this moment, yeah.

MARTIN: How are you doing? And how are the congregants doing?

LEWIS: We are, you know, devastated. Our building is gutted. Our sanctuary is gutted, Michel - so many memories in there of folks' baptisms and weddings, of Christmas worships and Easter, of organizing for Pride and organizing for the value of Black lives, putting on our hoodies to be in solidarity with Trayvon Martin - all of those memories for which we have many photographs. But, you know, buildings hold energy and hold space. And so we're really deeply grieving that, even as we're really clear that fire doesn't stop revolutionary love.

MARTIN: You haven't been physically in the building for some time because of the measures to control the pandemic, so services have been virtual for some months now. But what was your message this morning?

LEWIS: Yeah. Michel, we had picked this wonderful message from Isaiah that people know from the - Handel's "Messiah," "Comfort Ye All My People" (ph) - it's a song that we know - and also "Every Valley Shall Be Exalted." And this song is a cry from Isaiah saying, listen, guys; we have felt that we were being punished, but God wants us to know that we're not. God loves us and wants us to cry out into the world, make a way for our God. Make a way for our God - also, from "Godspell," "Prepare Ye The Way Of The Lord."

But I preached my own memories of Middle Church. I got married there. I have, you know, 17 years' memories of all the connections with my congregants and all their life transitions and all the ways we've moved with, you know, partners across the nation to make this nation a stronger, better place. I preached that. I preached, cry your tears, have your grief. And as we make a way for God to be accessible, Michel, to God's people, no matter who they are, no matter who they love, no matter how they claim religion or not, that's our job.

MARTIN: I realize this is so fresh. I apologize for asking. But have you thought about what Christmas will look like?

LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, I think - and I don't want to be, you know, pie-in-the-sky-sounding, Michel, but we - COVID came in March, and we did Easter digitally, which is also a huge Christian tradition. And, of course, we will miss each other and will miss our space. But we have learned how to, you know, enjoy the digital worship and then get into smaller conversations with each other - more groups, more connections, lots of phone calls - to try to duplicate the intimacy of congregational worship.

MARTIN: And I'm hearing you that it's people first, building second. But...

LEWIS: It is.

MARTIN: Is the - did the Liberty Bell survive - I mean, the Liberty Bell pealed to mark the birthday of the United States in 1776?

LEWIS: Yes.

MARTIN: It's rung for inaugurations and the deaths of presidents and remembrance of important events in the life of the nation. Did the Liberty Bell survive?

LEWIS: We don't know. But the tower in which it is hung survived, thanks be to God. So we've got two towers. The people of faith would say the word of the Lord is a strong tower. We've got two strong towers standing still and a facade of the sanctuary. And in the next few days, Michel, we'll know more about whether the bell survived. So I invite our listeners to sort of hang onto that in prayer for us. Our stained-glass windows are gone, our pews are gone, our organ is gone, our piano is gone. But we hope that the bell has survived and will ring for us soon.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend Jacqui Lewis, senior minister at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City.

Reverend Jacqui, thank you so much for your time. We wish you the very best.

LEWIS: Thank you so much. And if folks want to check us out at middlechurch.org, we'd love to have you experience our digital worship in this time of COVID.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOD ORANGE SONG, "IT IS WHAT IT IS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.