By DAMIAN MANN
Acharred wooden cross in front of Zion Lutheran Church on Fourth Street has become a symbol of the resolve of a congregation shaken by an arson fire Friday.
“The old, rugged cross still stands, and with God’s mercy we will move forward,” said Diane Lewis, a 62-year-old who attended Sunday service.
Almost 50 church members gathered in a meeting room adjoining the church, the odor of the burned building next door still lingering in the air.
Medford fire crews responded before 2 a.m. Friday to the fire that started when two males threw something similar to a Molotov cocktail at the cross in front of the church, according to witnesses.
The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is investigating the case because setting fire to a church can be prosecuted as a federal crime.
Pastor Cyril Hunkler said it’s important that the church respond with forgiveness in the face of an act of violence.
He said feelings are running high, noting that one church member asked, “After I forgive them, can I hurt them?”
Hunkler said the community will be watching to see how the church responds to this crisis.
“We need to pray for whoever did this,” he said. “It’s very important to forgive as Jesus did.”
Hunkler said he’s received an outpouring of support from other churches in the area.
The church choir sang a hymn thanking God and showing the congregation’s continued faith.
“Even after the terrible event the other day, we’re still thankful,” Hunkler said.
Wayne Bennett, an 83-year-old member of the congregation since 1956, said, “I think it’s a blessing in disguise.”
The church will likely get a new roof, new paint and new carpet in the interior. The new roof alone could cost $100,000 because the shingles have asbestos in them, Bennett estimated.
Built in 1927, the Gothic-style church was designed by noted local architect, Frank Clark, according to the Southern Oregon Historical Society. The formation of the congregation was 30 years earlier in 1897.
Like many other church members, Bennett said he would try to forgive those who caused the damage to the church.
“They know they’ve done something wrong,” Bennett said.
Allan Olson, a former church treasurer, said the fire reminded him of the Earth Liberation Front arson at the U.S. Forest Service building in 1998 in Medford, when he worked there.
“All of those kinds of incidents, including this one, should be treated as an act of terrorism,” said Olson, who shared other church members in saying the neighborhood is seeing an increase in crime.
Olson surveyed the damage inside the church, noting the plexiglass affixed to the outside likely helped save some of the stained glass windows from being damaged by the heat.
Karen Thomas, the church treasurer, said the stained glass windows will cost at least $4,000 each to replace.
The church is trying to raise $1,000 to pay for the deductible on its insurance, already receiving donations.
“A lady just gave me a check for $100,” she said.
Surveying the damage, Thomas said her initial reaction was shock.
“I’m so grateful it wasn’t any worse,” she said. “God is watching over us.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.