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BELIEFS

After trial by wildfire, Malibu Presbyterian Church returns

Worshipers celebrate services in an interim sanctuary on the site where, two years ago, their church burned to the ground. 'It feels like home again,' a deacon says.

November 09, 2009|Patrick J. McDonnell

For the Rev. Greg Hughes, it was a case of a resolute community of faith rising up from the ashes.

"We were burned down, but fired up as a people," said Hughes, senior pastor at Malibu Presbyterian Church. "We don't have a scarcity mind set, 'woe is us' or whatever. We're still out having fun, living life and finding joy in our faith."

The 300-member congregation marked a milestone Sunday, as worshipers celebrated services in an interim sanctuary on the hill above the Pacific for the first time since their landmark sanctuary burned to the ground in the 2007 Malibu wildfires. The tent-like domed structure, which debuted Sunday, is expected to house the church for a year or more until a permanent facility is built.

Despite the provisional nature of their spiritual abode, members were thrilled to attend services on the site after two years of what several described as "exile," worshiping at a nearby arts complex and an area elementary school.

"I guess it's a homecoming, an answer to our prayers," said the Rev. Michael Mudgett, associate pastor. "It's the next step in our journey. But this church is not a building, it's a community."

A sense of celebration and triumphant return was palpable as members filed into the temporary church on the spectacular 2-acre tract along Malibu Canyon Road, between Pepperdine University and HRL Laboratories.

Displayed on the front steps was the twisted metal steeple from the destroyed church, a tangible relic of the devastation.

The sun beat down and a light breeze blew as people arrived for a packed morning service.

"It feels like home again," said Marilyn Baumeister, a deacon and 35-year member, who remembers that harrowing Sunday two years ago when flames swept through the hills and engulfed the wood-frame church that had stood for almost six decades.

"They woke us up at 5:30 in the morning, the police driving through with their loudspeakers going," she recalled. "They were saying, 'Get up! Get out! The fire is coming.' "

Baumeister's nearby home was spared, but the image of flames swallowing up the beloved house of worship was seared in the congregants' minds. Many watched it unfold on television, incredulous.

"It was shocking and very sad, of course, but we really had a chance to come together and understand over time that this was about more than a building," said David Stratemeyer, a deacon. "Sure we missed the building, but we stayed strong, becoming more and more unified through this."

In the aftermath of the blaze, worshipers at the affluent congregation refused to back down on their commitment to help the less fortunate. Members volunteered to build homes for the poor in Mexico, donated $500,000 for a teen center in Los Angeles and dispatched a medical mission team to Brazil. A church preschool was rebuilt last year.

"We could have fractured under the strain and stress of our loss," Hughes said, "but it brought our congregation together with greater purpose and resolve."

The temporary structure, which cost about $2.5 million to build, was paid for with insurance proceeds, church officials said. With its vinyl exterior and oval dome shape, it resembles a "super tent," noted Hughes, who dubbed it a "new base camp."

The interior features acoustic panels, stage lighting, drop-down copper lamps and two large video screens that display song lyrics and readings from scriptures. Another prefabricated structure next door provides a home for Sunday school and other activities.

On Sunday, services featured a band with guitars, drums and an organ.

A two-minute video recounted the fire, the damage done and reconstruction efforts. It included a photo of Hughes searching in vain through the ash-covered rubble for a pair of silver communion cups that had been a gift from his father.

"We were gripped with sadness," said Hughes, who was upbeat Sunday in a flower-print short-sleeved shirt and cotton slacks.

Some still shed tears for the old church. But the grief and gloom of the Malibu wildfires seemed far away as the devout opened a new chapter.

"We had a two-year exodus and we're back," said Chris Laubach, a church elder who helped oversee reconstruction. "I think it's a joy for everybody to be the light up on the hill in Malibu again."

--

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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