ST. LOUIS • The small congregation of New Life Missionary Baptist Church worshiped Sunday morning on a side lawn, the smell of fire still in the air.
It had been about 30 hours since someone started a blaze at the front door to the church in the city’s Walnut Park East neighborhood. The flames melted vinyl siding and made their way into the tiny entry, where they ate through the rafters. But double doors into the sanctuary protected the rest of the church from damage, other than smoke.
“This was done by the mind of someone who is spiritually sick,” said the Rev. David Triggs, who has been pastor here for nearly six years.
The fire about 4 a.m. Saturday that damaged the front of the church, 4569 Plover Avenue, was the fifth similar case of arson at churches in the area in nine days. Investigators from several agencies are probing the unexplained string of fires that began Oct. 8.
Triggs said it was troubling that churches with black congregations seemed to be the link among the fires. But he remained upbeat as he set up a makeshift sanctuary outside, including a few chairs, a sound system and a portable lectern.
“There is more praise in my heart than anything because all I could think about was the dry grass and the fire spreading, and fortunately it did not,” he said before the service.
Triggs learned of the fire about 4:50 a.m. Saturday, when the church landlord’s daughter called him. By the time he got to to New Life, firefighters had the blaze extinguished.
“On the way here, I asked myself: ‘Did I do something wrong?’ ”
No, Triggs explained. Rather, he recognized it as a divine message. In all five church fires, they began and were largely contained at the front doors. The sanctuaries remained intact.
“What God is telling me is that we are one body of believers. We need a facelift. We need to take off the mask” of divisions that impede belief, he said.
About a month ago, the church decided to switch from Baptist to non-denominational, and was planning a move to a spot on Broadway, in the Baden neighborhood, with a new name: United Believers in Christ Ministries.
“But we didn’t want to leave this fast,” said long-time church member Clinton McMiller. He and his wife, Valerie, were married here. It’s here where their children — twin boys, 13, and a daughter, 14 — have learned the power of God.
And it’s here where the family has helped with clothes and food drives and attended small carnivals the church puts on each year for the neighborhood.
“If you hurt the church, you hurt the community,” Valerie McMiller said. Whoever did this “has to be someone evil. They have no fear for God, and that’s a bad place to be.”
About 40 people attended Sunday’s service. That represents a little more than half the congregation that meets in the rented one-story frame structure among well-kept homes near Bircher Boulevard, close to Interstate 70. The current church has about a dozen pews. Triggs said he wanted to build a house of worship that would fit 1,000 pews. Sketches of his dream church were displayed nearby as church members sang and clapped.
A few chairs were brought out on the lawn, but most people stood for the two-hour service, filled with tears, hugs and hallelujahs. Charronda Triggs, the pastor’s wife, read scripture from the New Testament.
“Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you,” she said, reading from First Peter. “But rejoice in as much as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”
Sean Robinson lost his way in his 20s, he said, but David Triggs, a childhood friend, brought him back to God. Robinson, now 38, has been a member of the church for about six months.
“This was a terrifying scare,” he said of the fire. “How someone can think in any way of destroying one of God’s houses?”
Lorelle Reed has been a member of the church for 28 years. She began attending services at age 7, when the church was in Kinloch before an expansion of Lambert-St. Louis International Airport forced a relocation. Reed called the fire a “senseless act” but said it was not her place to wonder why.
“God has it under control,” she said.
David Triggs agreed: “Nothing happens outside the will of God.” Wearing a butter-yellow sweater and black jeans, Triggs told other pastors in the St. Louis region to keep the faith.
“This won’t be the last time this happens,” Triggs said of the church fires.
He said he had no idea who would want to burn his church. But his members, and congregations at other fire-damaged places of worship, must remember why they open their doors each Sunday, he said: “Faith, love, forgiveness. And repentance.”