Visitors to the Union Baptist Church service and interreligious service Sunday afternoon found themselves in a sea of praise and song as members of the burned-out congregation turned into their own worship space.
"It is wonderful having all of you here today at Trinity St. Paul Church,” said Rev. Robert Gahler in welcome. “The people of Trinity have the opportunity of hospitality for today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes.”
It was the first Sunday service for members of the historical Union Baptist Church, which was destroyed in a fierce blaze in the early hours of Feb. 14. Union Baptist Pastor Reginald Hudson said the cause of the fire still unknown.
Gathering the youth of the Union Baptist congregation, Youth Minister Sharlene McCallum asked if they knew why service was being held at Trinity-St. Paul.
“All of our children may not yet know this, but our physical church burned down,” she said. “But we know that God loves us, and has called us for a purpose. Our purpose is not wrapped up in those four walls.”
Glahler, of Trinity St. Paul's, offered words of encouragement and a five-foot “Welcome” poster that was signed by the church's school.
Rabbi Melvin Sirner of Beth El Synagogue said that he was mindful of the story in the book of Exodus when God appeared in front of Moses.
“[There, a] bush was on fire, but it was not consumed. Union Baptist was on fire, but Union Baptist was not consumed,” he said, to great applause and cheer by congregants.
“I'm happy that we were given this space to worship in,” said Jeanna Johnson, who joined the church last year. “I travel [from Ossining] because it is such a good church. It is well worth it.”
Hudson told the group that generous responses to the fire have come from nearby and far away, with support taking many forms.
For instance, he said, County Executive Rob Astorino offered use of the Westchester County Center on April 23 for a benefit concert. ShopRite also is extending its hand, and will give $2,500 to the church, collect food at many of their stores, ask for donations at the checkout counters and implore the services of its marketing staff as well as be the first corporate sponsor for the benefit concert, he said.
Assemblyman George Latimer, City Judge Susan Kettner, Councilmembers Al Tarrantino and Richard St. Paul, and Mayor Noam Bramson were in attendance. So was New Rochellean Genevieve Thompson, for whom it was the second service of the day. She had been at her own church, Family Christian Center in New Rochelle.
“My pastor asked me to come over to this service to extend a hand, and to see if there is there anything that we can do to support,” Thompson said.
She was awakened at 2 a.m. when the church was burning, and called others to join in group prayer.
“It is a tragedy,” Thompson said, “but out of the ashes, it is bonding the community and bringing people together. It's bringing a lot of different faiths and religions together.”
Unlike the Union Baptist Church building, Trinity St. Paul's sanctuary has a pulpit, into which Pastor Hudson climbed to begin his sermon, before deciding that it wasn't for him. The Mayor, taking an opportunity to speak, got the crowd going when he said that, “the Pastor may not have needed to have ascended to the pulpit, but... I can't resist,” and finished his speech in the high locale.
“For those who read and saw the news one week ago, instead of retreating to their daily affairs, they stopped and asked 'what can I do?'" said the mayor. "For the difficulty of the chapters ahead, my first message to the people of Union Baptist is that you are not alone. There is a city of 75,000 who are ready and willing to offer a hand to your cause."
Carl Procario-Foley, president of the New Rochelle Interreligious Council, said that the faith community of New Rochelle, “as diverse as it is, stands with you.”
Donations to the church should be sent to the Union Baptist Church Rebuild Fund, PO Box 1743, New Rochelle, NY 10801.