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Memphis congregation reflects, looks ahead after devastating fire

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A UMNS photo by Sandra Mathias

A burned-out shell is all that remains of First United Methodist Church in downtown Memphis, Tenn.
Oct. 17, 2006

By Cathy Farmer*

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) -- As they mourn the loss of their building, members of First United Methodist Church are facing the future with the faith that has kept their congregation vital for nearly two centuries.

"We're not defeated," said the Rev. Martha Wagley, senior pastor of First United Methodist Church. "We're devastated, but we're not defeated."

Historic First Church, the first congregation of any denomination organized in Memphis, ignited Oct. 6 in a fire that sent clouds of burning embers swirling across the downtown skyline.

"We have a resurrection faith," Wagley continued. "New life comes out of destruction and tragedy. The building is destroyed, but not the church."

Vicki Carayiannis, on her early morning walk that day, saw the glow of burning buildings just blocks away. "When I saw a fireman, he told me that a Methodist church had been demolished; that it was a really old one. I burst into tears and said, 'That's my church!'"

Carayiannis rushed home to turn on the TV. "I cried and cried and cried," she said, as she watched the conflagration. Then she realized that her son Alexander, 7, was sitting there watching her and getting all teary-eyed.

"Mommy, my heart is in that church," Alexander said. Then he drew a picture of a broken heart and said, "This is how my heart feels right now."

Carayiannis asked her son if he felt better after drawing the picture. "Yes, ma'am," he replied. "I love my church."

When they went to the scene of the fire that afternoon, Alexander took along the pictures he had drawn to give to Pastor Martha in an attempt to make her feel better as well.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Sandra Mathias

The congregation of First United Methodist Church marches to the burned church.
Alexander has been going to First Church since he was 3 months old. He recently donated a lot of his toys to the nursery in the Pepper Building, next door to the sanctuary. When he found out that the Pepper Building hadn't burned down, he said, "My toys! My toys! They're still OK for everybody!"

The congregation is still working with its insurance company on the damages, but the church was a total loss except for the Pepper Building -- the education building-- which sustained water and smoke damage. The computers melted down in the at-risk children's lab, and the food and clothing in the church's food pantry and clothes closet ministry were lost.

Memories made

Carayiannis finds it ironic that the church burned "just as we were growing." Her son is one of five who were born around the same time. The five young couples had painted and furnished the first nursery needed in the church in more than 30 years.

Bart Ziegenhorn's daughter Whitney is one of the five children whose parents redecorated the nursery.

"Whitney watched the fire on TV but didn't say much," said Ziegenhorn, a young attorney. "But that night, she had a bad dream that the church was destroyed. Then she dreamed that we rebuilt it with a beautiful archangel on the wall. She told me all about it when she climbed into bed with me."

Ziegenhorn said of all the wonderful ministries fielded by his church, he is most proud of the kids' program he and his friends put together. "I want to keep it going," he said.

"And I'm proud of the history of our church," he added. "Sometimes it's overwhelming to know what this church has done and is still doing. I take pride in what we stand for and what we've stood for since this church's inception." He was referring to programs like FirstWorks Inc., which gives at-risk children a chance in life.

"I've had some bad times, like when my wife and I lost a daughter who was stillborn," he said. "The people here and my faith brought me through it."

Watching the church burn "was tough," he said. "It brought back memories, both good and bad. The feelings rush in and you get all choked up. This church picked me up when I was down. You find out you're not as strong as you like to think are you. It's God and these people who pick you up.

"Yes, the church is just a building," he continued, "and the building can be replaced, but that building is a symbol of the congregation, of wonderful people like Paul and Ruth Efnor."

Paul Efnor, a member of First Church since 1944, said the destruction of the building was the worst thing that ever happened to him.

"I met my wife Ruth at the church in 1943 over a game of Chinese Checkers," he said.

During WWII, First Church hosted a canteen for servicemen. Efnor was a sailor stationed at Millington, Tenn. "We were married a year later in the church, and in 1944, I joined," he said.

Efnor, 82, and his wife raised their two children, Danny and Karen, in the church.

Handy with tools, Paul made keeping everything in repair his ministry. "I'm handy with my hands," he explained. "I can fix things, so they'd call me when something needed doing.

"I watched it burn," he said gruffly. "It meant so much to me, it was just devastating to see. I loved this church. It was our second home. I hope we can get it back, but it won't ever be the same again."

'Harvest is ripe'

The only thing saved from the fire was a small antique iron cross that was stored in the basement. It's caked with black deposits, but Efnor thinks he can recover it. He'll try.

Despite the loss, no one is talking about moving the church from downtown. The congregation was founded more than 180 years ago, and its building dated back to 1893.

"Downtown is growing," Wagley said. "The harvest is ripe for new Christians and the kind of outreach we do."

On the Sunday after the fire, when the congregation was meeting in the Cannon Center across the plaza from the shell of their church, a new downtown resident came forward to join the church. "Next Sunday, we're having two adult baptisms," Wagley said. "Our church is growing."

Not only is the congregation adding members by profession of faith, but eight baby boys have been born in the past six months. As of the end of 2005, the church had more than 266 members, and it's added several by profession of faith and transfer of membership since then.

Church trustees have been meeting daily since the fire. The congregation is refocusing its capital funds campaign, "First Responder," from refurbishing the church to rebuilding. The downtown community is behind them.

"They're really rallying around us," Wagley said. "The president of the Muslim community brought prayers, offers of space to worship and a monetary expression of support. Rabbi Micah Greenstein was here Friday to be with us."

She added that United Methodist ministers gathered from north, south and east throughout the day.

First Church is just a shell now. The sturdy limestone and granite walls are still standing, but there's nothing inside. The lovingly polished pews, the wooden beams, the sensationally beautiful stained-glass windows, the pulpit and hymnals and choir robes and Bibles are all gone. Able to withstand hurricanes, the building bowed to fire.

The cause is still undetermined, according to law enforcement officials, but there's no indication of a criminal act.

"We don't know where we'll be worshipping after the 15th," Carayiannis said, "but we know we're going to make it. We'll all be there and we'll rebuild. There are so many prayers going up for our church. It's just an outpouring of love. I hope we can keep the momentum going."

*Farmer is director of communications for the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference of the United Methodist Church. This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in the Memphis Conference edition of the United Methodist Reporter.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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