Minnesota congregation pulls together after fire

By Victoria Rebeck, Special Contributor…

 

A handful of altar items survived the near-total destruction by fire of historic Walker UMC in Minneapolis. The blaze on May 27 is believed to have begun in the attic, with lightning a possible cause.

MINNEAPOLIS—After a Sunday evening fire destroyed their building, Walker Community United Methodist Church members did what they do best: sing and plan their future.

The Minneapolis church building caught fire on May 27, between 8 and 9 p.m. during a thunderstorm. Twelve hours later, church members and friends gathered at neighboring Living Spirit United Methodist Church, led in exuberant singing by the Walker Singers and in prayer by Bishop Sally Dyck.

“Walker Church continues to be a witness in the community, even through this,” said Bishop Dyck of the Minnesota Conference. “Even news reports noted that though the congregation is small, it’s vibrant, and it reaches into the community.”

“Before us now is a new journey,” the Rev. Walter Lockhart IV, pastor, told the gathered parishioners. “Remember that yesterday I preached about hope, and that we don’t know what the questions are? This is a kairos/change moment for which few things can prepare us.”

Fire Chief John Fruedel said five firefighters were injured in the three-alarm blaze, and one remained in the hospital for treatment of first- and second-degree burns.

“The hardest part of the recovery is that people are injured,” Mr. Lockhart said.

The fire seemed to have started in the attic, Mr. Fruedel said. Though the cause was still under investigation, he said that “lightning could have been a very strong contributor to this fire.”

Among the few items recovered were the 1909 cornerstone, a safe, and an undamaged rainbow flag that hung in the entry way.

The building houses the congregation and several community groups. Twice a month, Mr. Walker invites neighbors to a community meal.

Parishioners vowed not to cancel the meal planned for May 28. Crosswinds United Methodist Church in nearby Maple Grove offered to provide the food. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak told Mr. Lockhart he’d make sure that traffic barricades would be erected around the church’s street to allow the dinner to become a block party.

Mr. Lockhart said that several organizations, including a synagogue, offered the congregation worship space for the summer. The church has many options for space in the future and will carefully consider them, he said.

According to a history by Conrad deFiebre posted on the Walker church website, the red-brick Akron Plan building was dedicated in 1910. It was named for Thomas Barlow Walker, a lumber baron and philanthropist whose contribution paid for much of the construction cost.

The congregation dates to 1886. Serving the Powderhorn Park neighborhood, which was growing rapidly in the early 20th century, its membership peaked at 649 in 1927.

It has weathered neighborhood demographic changes, social and cultural shifts, and untimely deaths of two pastors. It is known for its social justice ministry and for opening the building to community groups.

A parishioner testified during the gathering that “Walker has welcomed the highly anxious and spiritually searching.”

 

The Rev. Rebeck is director of communications for the Minnesota Conference.

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