Church Offers Healing after Neighborhood Tragedy

Date Posted: 
Monday, September 21, 2015

By Rob McKay

The going got really tough, and this group really got going.

On the afternoon of March 26, 2015, a gas explosion sparked a three-day fire that demolished three buildings in Manhattan’s East Village, killed two men, injured about two dozen others, displaced an estimated 125 residents, and caused uncalculated millions of dollars in damage.

The tragedy also attracted international media attention as firefighters, emergency technicians, and even trained dogs spent days sifting through the remains, looking for signs of life and valuables. The ground zero area on East Seventh Street was filled with police barricades, emergency vehicles, cranes and dump trucks, leaving residents of the surrounding buildings temporarily homeless and confused. Some businesses burned down, while others sustained enough damage to be condemned. Still more had to deal with a temporary halt in clients and deliveries.

Middle Collegiate Church (RCA), which stands directly across the street from the decimated buildings, swung into action immediately. Of course there were constant prayers, on-the-spot counseling, and positive cheer, but members also provided water, coffee, and light bites to eat, while the venue offered restrooms, meeting spaces, and warm places to rest. The fire department, police department, Con Edison, and other groups turned the social hall and the community room into their makeshift headquarters for about two weeks.

Meanwhile, staffers and parishioners aided these efforts by constantly spreading information through their social media networks and word of mouth on how others could volunteer their time or get relief. Jacqui Lewis, senior minister at Middle Collegiate, comforted the family of one of the victims, Nicholas Figueroa. She also prayed with them and attended the funeral.

After the rescue mission turned to a recovery mission, Middle Collegiate hosted meetings for local businesses affected by the fire in tandem with Small Business Services, a city agency that offered help with insurance and loans. The church hung a banner proudly stating “East Village Strong” on its outdoor fence. Passers-by showed their support by writing prayers and comments on it.

In partnership with the nearby Grace Church High School and the restaurant La Palapa, Middle Collegiate collected and distributed clothing and $25 gift cards to displaced residents. Members also raised $7,500 for the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and $2,700 as part of a GoFundMe campaign for a family that was left without a home after having lived on the block for four decades.

“We had a space at ground zero and we had love and prayers to offer, and we did,” says Lewis. “We were called by God to be of purpose to people and we were able to be a presence.”

The Palm Sunday service that took place three days after the explosion was dedicated to first responders, about 12 of whom were working that day. The parishioners brought them into the sanctuary and seated them in the front row amid bursts of applause.

“We blessed them, prayed for them,” recalls Lewis. “It was a powerful experience. People just clapped, and we had the longest standing ovation.”

Rob MacKay is a freelance writer and member of Sunnyside Reformed Church in New York City.

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