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Fire-damaged Clinton Hill church holds Christmas services

The fire-damaged entrance to St. Luke-St. Matthew Church as seen from the inside of the narthex looking. This photo, used with permission from the church, appeared on Facebook along with a message that, in the midst of a near-tragedy, boldly proclaimed hospitality: “If you are burnt out and in need of peace and hope this Christmas come join us at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Our doors are open wider than ever. You are welcome here!” Photo courtesy Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew

Brooklyn Daily Eage

The Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew, damaged by a two-alarm fire early on Sunday morning, Dec. 23, has prevailed and was able to hold its Christmas services the next day.

According to statements on the websites of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island and the parish, at 520 Clinton Ave., “The front doors and narthex of the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew, in Clinton Hill were damaged by fire in the early morning hours of Sunday, Dec. 23.  The cause of the fire is still under investigation but is considered suspicious.”

The Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew, which was founded in 1841, is part of the Episcopal Archdeaconry of Brooklyn and the wider Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. Parish and diocesan spokespersons told the Brooklyn Eagle last week via text messages that an insurance company is now handling the damage assessment, and that diocesan offices are closed through January 1.

A notice on the church’s website reads: “We’re Rebuilding in the Spirit of Peace, Hope, and Justice this Christmastide. In the early morning of Sunday, Dec. 23rd, our church suffered a serious fire. The severity of the damage is still being assessed. We have received an enormous amount of heartfelt support from our community near and far, and for this, we are deeply grateful. Although we have suffered physical damage, we are not deterred.”

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the Rev. Christopher Ballard, the church’s curate (assistant priest), said the flames had caused “significant damage,” burning the wooden doors of two entrances and charring the foyer.” The sanctuary — worship space — itself escaped major damage and there were no injuries.

Father Ballard told the New York Times that “the fire had been fueled by a pair of gasoline containers donated to Occupy Sandy volunteers, who had used the church as a staging area for hurricane relief efforts. The gasoline was intended to be used in a generator for a Christmas party in the Rockaways on Sunday night." Fr. Ballard said the containers had been put outside when the church was cleared of most donated materials to make way for Christmas services.”

The NY Times quoted Fr. Ballard: “Somebody decided to take those canisters, dump them on the doors of the church and set the gas on fire,” he said. “We don’t know why someone would do this, what darkness is in someone’s heart.”

City Councilwoman Letitia James issued a press statement on Sunday, offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to persons responsible for likely arson.

“This fire was a painful blow to an institution that has done and continues to do so much for the Clinton Hill community,” said Councilwoman James. “I am relieved that no one was harmed, and I urge anyone with information on the individual(s) responsible for this arson to come forward.”

Anyone with tips related to the fire may contact the 88th Precinct police at (718) 636-6511, or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-577-TIPS (http://a056-crimestoppers.nyc.gov/crimestoppers/public/index.cfm). A reward of $1,000 is being offered for any information leading to arrest of individual(s) responsible for this heinous crime. Those interested in supporting rebuilding efforts should contact either the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew at (718) 638-0686, or the Office of Council Member Letitia James at (718) 260-9191.

This Episcopal parish in Clinton Hill gained international fame as a hub for Occupy Sandy hurricane relief efforts in the wake of Superstorm Sandy that damaged much of New York City on Oct. 29.

The clergy, the Rev. Michael Sniffen, rector of St. Luke & St. Matthew Church, and the curate, the Rev. Christopher Ballard, led a major volunteer effort, creating a pantry and “bridal” registry storehouse of supplies.

The Episcopal News Service’s Sharon Sheridan reported last month on this parish’s outreach work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Referring to St. Luke & St. Matthew Church as “a “holy warehouse” for relief supplies, Sheridan reported that donations to this hub made a very quick turnaround: almost as soon as they arrived, the donations were then delivered to hurricane victims. As of the time of that article, more than 20,000 volunteers—many of them regulars—participated in the relief effort, which has also received several hundred thousand dollars.
 
“The community-building is amazing,” said Fr. Sniffen, in that article. “A lot of the volunteers have been coming back day after day, so we’re all getting to know one another.”
 
Fr. Sniffen, in his Christmas Eve sermon, incorporated the church’s fire with Biblical stories and metaphors of fire:  Moses’ meeting God in the burning bush, the “pillar of fire” that delivered the Israelites from Egypt into freedom, and the tongues of fire at the Christian Pentecost.  Speaking of a holy kind of fire, Fr. Sniffen said, “As the flames were brought under control by our Fire Department, God was at work immolating an even stronger fire in our souls that can never be extinguished. A fire not lit with gasoline and paper, but with inspiration, truth and love. The fire lit within us—the Christmas fire—is the same fire lit in Bethlehem in Palestine over two thousand years.

The fire lit within us is the same fire that has sparked people power, peace and justice movements across the centuriesIt is the same fire that inspired Gandhi and Dr. King and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero and Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and each and every person in this building who keeps the flame of peace alive in the midst of a world that is marked by violence.

“The same fire that burns within us is that gives light to the civil rights movement, to the farm workers movement, to the Arab Spring, to Occupy Wall Street, it is the same fire that enabled us to give mutual aid, love and compassion to nurture those [victimized by Hurricane Sandy] to affect the lives of tens of thousands of people in this city and beyond. And tonight, we come together to celebrate the force of that fire within us.” Fr. Sniffen’s sermon, which is viewable on YouTube, received an extended applause.

December 31, 2012 - 1:12pm


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