Good Shepherd Church rallies after trial by fire

Reconstruction on track to begin this month after devastating blaze

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

The heat of a fire at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church on Sep. 5, 2018, was so intense that it compromised the material in the building's cinder blocks, and the weight of the water used to put the fire out was so great that the ceiling over the sanctuary collapsed onto the pews.

Six months after the fire, what happened to the building and to the faith community has come into clearer focus. While the fire was devastating to the bricks and mortar structure, it also was a "trial by fire," if you will, that revealed the character of the congregation.

Regarding the bricks and mortar, an assessment of the extent of the damage revealed that the congregation would not be "back home" for about a year. Every wall made of particle board or plaster had to come down. Each of the organ's pipes had to be cleaned individually.

Paul Schlichting, a Good Shepherd member who is video documenting what will be a more than year-long recovery process, said, "About a month ago I spent the afternoon shooting the inside of the church of the damage. I must admit it was a bit surreal."

Rev. Kathy Nolte, Good Shepherd's pastor, explained, for example, that as long as a major makeover had to be done, it was important for the congregation to resist the temptation to "put it back together the way it used to be" and think about how the renovations could meet the needs of the church decades into the future. 

The last six months have been spent consulting with architects, getting bids from contractors and complying with village codes. Nolte hopes that demolition and reconstruction can begin sometime in April, which means that the congregation might be able to reenter its building again sometime in October.

Nolte noted that the fire and the aftermath have revealed things about her congregation.

For one thing, responding to the fire revealed to the congregation that it could express emotions like grief together and be a comforting community. The congregation held its first worship service after the fire in the basement of Euclid Methodist Church, which had opened their doors to the now homeless church. 

"We sat in a circle," Nolte said. "We worshipped and lamented together. My sermon was about sharing that sense of grief together."

On the positive side, being homeless reminded the members about what they had sung back when they were in Sunday school: "The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is the people." 

They had a chance to understand that "home" is not necessarily a building. 

Deaconess Debbie Spear is the Good Shepherd staff member in charge of education for all ages. Looking back at the last six months she concluded, "As a congregation we've had to figure what it means to be church without our usual space. It also gave us an opportunity to look at what it means to be part of a community." 

Good Shepherd held its first post-fire service at Euclid Methodist Church and the next Sunday they held their service at First Baptist Church where they have worshipped, set up a church office and done some of their programing, ever since. 

Spear said they have also used the Oak Park Public Library and restaurants for meetings and ministry.

Nolte said she and the congregation have, from that first Sunday in a church basement, framed the experience in terms of the story of the Exodus. 

"It's such a clear image," she said, "of walking away from something familiar into something unknown, carrying only the things that are most precious to you and sensing that God is walking with you or, perhaps, before you."

Nolte acknowledged that attendance has gone down during their First Baptist sojourn but that, perhaps counterintuitively, energy has remained constant, if not increased. 

Spear explained the high energy level by saying, "Experiencing something like a disaster might bring out more of who you are. We've been a healthy, vibrant congregation, and we haven't lost that coming here [First Baptist]. We're leaning more into who we have been."

Elaine Tuber, First Baptist Church's financial secretary, in a way confirmed Spear's statement.

"It's been an amazing experience working with Good Shepherd," Tuber said. "The two churches have worked very well together." 

She said her congregation moved their service to 9 a.m. to allow Good Shepherd to begin at 10:30, with both congregations meeting for the coffee hour in between.

Mary Lee Eneberg, the office administrator for First Baptist Church, added that Good Shepherd blessed her congregation by doubling the size of the choir for their Christmas Cantata.

Perhaps the loudest shout out came from Rev. Cheryl Henson, who was serving as the transition pastor at First Baptist when Good Shepherd began using the church's space. 

"As a minister of 44 years, I have never seen two congregations work and share their space as effectively as Good Shepherd and First Baptist," Henson said. "The partnership has energized both churches and given both congregations new perspectives on community. There is a new vibrancy at First Baptist because of our Lutheran brothers and sisters."

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