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With a Faith Unshaken: Lebanon Congregation Holds First Service Since Fire

  • Parishioners from the First Baptist Church in Lebanon greet each other and socialize following their service at the Masonic Lodge, New Year's Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017. The church congregation was displaced when a fire destroyed their church on School Street late Wednesday night. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Florence Roberts embraces Deacon Jim Newcomb, both of Lebanon, N.H., as they depart from a Sunday church service at the Masonic Lodge in Lebanon, New Year's Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017. The First Baptist Church congregation was displaced when a fire destroyed their church on School Street late Wednesday night. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The First Baptist Church held Sunday services at the Masonic Lodge in Lebanon, N.H. after the congregation was displaced by a fire that destroyed their church on School Street late Wednesday night. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • The Lebanon Fire Department and the New Hampshire State Fire Marshal's Office begin to sift through the remains of the First Baptist Church in Lebanon, N.H., on New Year's Day, Sunday, January 1, 2017. The First Baptist Church congregation held their services at the Masonic Lodge two blocks from their former church, on Sunday. (Valley News - John Happel) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2017 12:09:01 AM
Modified: 1/4/2017 11:02:13 AM

Lebanon — Pastor Rick Pinilla gave his Sunday service to the congregation of the First Baptist Church in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by novel symbols.

The worshippers came together for the first time since their historic church on School Street, a city landmark, burned down last week, depriving the congregation of its home of the past 150 years.

Rather than a Baptist cross, an all-seeing Eye of Providence gazed from the wall behind the altar, framed by Greco-Roman columns and a pediment. As Pinilla strove to soothe and rally his flock, he did so in the sanctuary of the Masonic Lodge, a neighbor down the street that will serve as a temporary sanctuary to the displaced community.

Despite the change in venue, church leaders preached continuity — a message of resilience and growth in the face of adversity, one that harks back to the foundation of the Christian church. Deacon Jim Newcomb opened Sunday’s proceedings, summing them up with a quotation from the 20th-century American pastor A.W. Tozer: “The march, not the dirge, has ever been the music of Christianity.”

Trustee Chairman Dave Rataj gave a brief update: The church’s insurance provider had declared the building a total loss, and agreed to fund a reconstruction. The structure will remain in fire investigators’ custody until they determine the cause of last week’s blaze. After that, parishioners will salvage what items they can from the ruins and make plans to rebuild.

Rataj, who was among the first church members to reach the scene last Wednesday night, said he had watched the following morning as firefighters extinguished the last of the flames.

Looking at the destruction, the trustee chairman said, his bafflement had ceded to understanding: this event, he realized, was meant to bring the congregation closer together.

“I asked God why,” he said, “and I got an answer. If you look to your right, and if you look to your left and behind you, there’s your answer.”

In his homily, Pinilla touched on much the same message: behind each seemingly random event is a benevolent creator with a plan for his children.

“We may not know why everything happens,” he said, but “we are not victims of arbitrary circumstance.”

In between hymns and recitations, the churchgoers, more than 60 of them, looked down for a moment to pray for loved ones, breaking the silence occasionally to speak a name: “Dave.” “Eve.” “Marilyn.”

Around the same time, two blocks away, the morning sun streamed through the exposed rafters of the burned-out sanctuary as fire marshals inspected the wreckage.

Later that day, Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said that investigators had finished processing the scene and turned the building back over to the church.

“We are confident on the area of origin being near the organ but have not determined a cause,” he said in an email.

Back in the lodge, Pinilla began to sway from side to side, gathering energy as he drove home his point.

He quoted from the Revelation to John, a book of the New Testament that describes Christian eschatology — and, more important to the sermon, God’s intentions for his church.

In the days when the Book of Revelation was written, Pinilla said, the Roman Empire still worshipped its old pantheon, and Christians were considered pariahs. Nevertheless, he said, “They stood up, they refused to compromise, and they eventually came to dominate the empire.”

Pinilla compared those circumstances to today’s, in which church attendance is down nationwide and secular organizations such as corporations wield far more power than religious groups.

Then, he referenced another historical period — the 19th century, when Christian churches’ influence also had dipped, this time thanks to the Industrial Revolution. With the religious and social movement known as the Great Awakening, that influence was restored, he said.

The point? Christians have overcome hardship many times, Pinella said, and in Lebanon, the Baptist congregation has the opportunity to prove it can do the same.

“The fact that there is evil and unbelief in the world should not give us pause in our mission,” he said.

Pinilla urged the congregants not only to come together and restore what they had lost, but also to use the opportunity to renew their religious faith.

“Some of you got married there,” he said. “Some of you were baptized there. Your mothers carried you in there and you grew up there. … and that’s beautiful.

“But that’s not what it’s about,” he added. “it’s about Jesus Christ.”

After the service, worshippers said they were still absorbing the shock, though they hoped, too, to regain some of what they had lost.

Earlier on the night of the fire, Michael Balog had visited the church to help with a community dinner, he recalled on Sunday. That was around 6 p.m. on Wednesday; five hours later the building burned.

When he heard the news the next morning, Balog couldn’t believe it — not until he saw the gutted shell of his church.

“I stood there and looked up,” he said, “and just felt like crying.”

Jan Rostron, a 15-year member of the congregation who met and married her husband in the old church, said the aftermath of the fire had been difficult to bear for her, as well.

Nevertheless, Rostron said, she and other churchgoers will throw themselves into the construction of a new church, and will build a renewed base of faith and communal solidarity to go along with it.

“It’s time to put our memories aside and make new ones.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.


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