Adam Hearlson has been the pastor at Overbrook Presbyterian Church for five years. What he saw on a Monday in mid-January was something he hoped he’d never have to experience.
A fire caused extensive damage to the church building on this Martin Luther King Day evening, a blaze that wrecked the 135-year-old sanctuary and left the majority of the building with either smoke or water damage, or both. As Adam stood outside the building in this Philadelphia-area neighborhood as firefighters battled the blaze, a mix of emotions came over him.
“It’s a sad moment to watch something that’s so meaningful and important to people,” he said of the fire’s destruction. “It was a mixture of grief and fear. You hope someone’s not in the building. You hope that you’re not going to see loss of life or that the fire’s going to spread somewhere. You think about all of the firefighters who are there, and you want to make sure they’re not in immediate danger even though they are doing something that’s so important. Those are the initial reactions.”
The fire was discovered by a community theater group who had arrived to practice in the church. They smelled smoke when they entered, quickly exited and called for an emergency response. No one else was inside, and no injuries were reported in battling the fire.
“The emotions themselves, you have little moments of poignancy in acute sadness or grief, but because of the urgency of the moment,” Adam said. “Like many ministers in that situation you sort of compartmentalize your feelings just so you can get things done. The second week was a lot harder in a lot of ways. Instead of moments of poignant sadness there’s a sort of dull ache over what has happened, over how this will affect things, over the type of work that will be necessary in the coming future, and you hope that the generosity and grace that people are sharing with each other now will continue to go forward.
“You hope that people will find opportunities to serve, you hope this will be a galvanizing moment. And you’re also living in and walking on an unknown path. I’m really proud of our church, I’m proud of what it has done. Now we have a long path ahead of us and we’re trying to be sober about that and realize that there are going to be some challenges. We’ll be keeping an eye on our values, making sure that we are still paying attention to each other, that we’re caring for each other, that we’re not losing sight of our mission to the wider neighborhood. All of these things are going to be really important for us as we think about what it means to restore, rebuild and revitalize.”
As of late January, a cause of the fire had not been determined. It is believed that the fire started in the back portion of the sanctuary, which is the oldest part of the building and dates to 1889. Because the fire went upward, the roof has extensive damage as well, and the stained-glass windows that lined the sanctuary were also destroyed.
“It doesn’t look like there are major structural issues,” Adam said. “Some of the pews will be restored – they’re not charred, they didn’t catch on fire because most of the heat just kept going into the ceiling.”
In the basement, water damage is consistent with what occurs as the result of thousands of gallons of water used to extinguish the fire on the first floor. Props and supplies were being stored below the sanctuary by the local theater group that discovered the fire, and those lost items have caused the theater to suspend future performances.
While the majority of the building will be available for use in the coming months, it has been estimated that it will be two years until the congregation will be able to worship in the sanctuary again. Reconstructing the sanctuary will allow Overbrook Church an opportunity to do some updating to that space to make it more worshiper friendly.
“We’re trying to figure out a way to make this also an opportunity where the sanctuary space better fits the needs of our ministry today,” Adam explained. “One way that we think about that is, there are steps everywhere into a chancel. Given the fact that we want to be a welcoming and accommodating place to all people, recognizing that a ramp somewhere that gets people into the chancel leadership is probably in our best interests.”
Overbrook’s fellowship hall, once it has been cleaned up, could be a possible meeting location for the congregation until the sanctuary is rebuilt. The first two Sundays after the fire the congregation, which averages between 135-150 people on a Sunday morning, met at nearby Penn Wynne Presbyterian Church, a location Overbook plans to use for the foreseeable future.
“The last two weeks have been pretty jammed,” Adam said of attendance that reached 200-plus on the Sunday mornings after the fire. “The outpouring of love, attention and presence has been really remarkable. This has really galvanized a lot of people. We’re seeing a lot of folks interested in helping out. We’re trying to figure out the best ways to organize everyone’s energy. It’s a beautiful time in many ways to watch how people are responding with such grace and generosity at this time.
“Everybody is incredibly grateful to be a part of the church. They still recognize that the church is the people. They want to make sure that we are caring for each other. They have been exceedingly generous and kind. The energy that is out there is really positive. I, myself, have been the beneficiary of so many people’s kind words. This is an opportunity for us to continue encouraging each other, and this is something we as a church are growing into and really excited about what that looks like in the future.”
Aside from Penn Wynne’s generosity to provide space for the Overbrook church to worship on Sunday mornings, many other churches have also stepped up to lend a helping hand. Overbrook’s preschool has moved to the Presbyterian Church of Llanerch in Havertown; the church’s staff, prayer group and Bible study meets Wednesdays at Temple Beth Hillel Beth El synagogue; the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas hosts Overbrook’s retired person ministry, and Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church is printing Overbrook’s bulletins for its Sunday morning worship and has offered office space for meetings.
“In the same way that this has galvanized the community of Overbrook, it has also shown us the power of our neighbors and the collaborative love that they’re showering us with,” Adam said. “It’s really been a beautiful thing.
“The outreach that we have received from our neighbors has been extensive and overwhelming. This fire is encouraging us to move outside our church to continue to lean, rest and rely on our neighbors, to be a place of generosity and comfort as they have been for us and to do more collaborative work together.”
A week after the fire at Overbrook, the Presbytery of Philadelphia held its quarterly stated meeting. There, a fund was set up for people to donate, and the response has been strong, with more than $2,900 donated. Presbytery Executive Presbyter the Rev. Ruth Santana-Grace was at Overbrook Church the day after the fire and has made resources available for the congregation.
“The presbytery’s response has been immediate, reflecting a strong incarnational presence,” she said. “I’m really proud of our presbytery – of how our congregations and leaders have generously responded. I have been particularly touched by the Overbrook leadership – pastor, staff and session – as they have leaned into the journey before them with thoughtful intentionality and a profound awareness of their identity as a people of hope. To stand with them amidst the rubble and ashes was both daunting and sacred. This will be a long journey, but we are committed to being companions on the way.
“The response has been extraordinary. The covenant community has just been so supportive. They have distributed some of their activities so that they can maintain their ministries to the larger community and to themselves.”
This is the second fire that has affected a Presbyterian church in Overbrook in the last seven years. In the fall of 2016, Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church was gutted by a fire that completely destroyed the building.
“It’s very different,” Ruth said, comparing the fires. “A similarity is that the community rallied around the neighborhood. That church in 2016 was very small, down to a remnant community, that rented space from lots of other communities. This church worshiped the first Sunday after the fire and packed out a sanctuary. They were together in one place so that the community would feel that sense of connection, of grief, of loss and rise together as well.”
The morning of the fire, Overbrook Church began displaying the T-shirt Memorial to the Lost, a large outdoor display that includes a T-shirt on a hanger with a name written on the shirts corresponding with a person who was killed by gun violence in the Philadelphia area in the past year. The traveling memorial makes an annual stop at Overbrook, which displays the shirts beginning on MLK Day.
The fire did not affect the T-shirt memorial, but it has clearly impacted this Overbook congregation in many ways.
“This is teaching us to be responsive and not reactive, to be thoughtful to how we move going forward,” Adam said. “I think there is a deep desire to have things the way they were, but there’s also tremendous opportunity to create something really beautiful out of a moment of destruction. In order to do the latter, we’ll need a little bit of attention, and we’ll need our pace to be deliberate. We need to move with discernment, intention, deliberation, just making sure that we are doing what’s in the best interest of our community and our neighborhood.
“I’m seeing God in the community and the love and grace that’s being shared inside our community and from our neighbors. I have been so inspired by the ways in which our neighbors have loved us, and that has given me tremendous hope.”
Note: Anyone wishing to donate toward Overbrook Presbyterian Church’s rebuilding project can donate through the church’s online campaign by clicking here.