Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) - On Tuesday, April 26, Zion Presbyterian Church at 27th and Old Cheney Road in Lincoln experienced its second devastating fire, in less than nine years.
The first, in 2007, had destroyed Zion’s historic brick church at 9th and D streets. That’s when Senior Pastor Stu Kerns began emphasizing for his flock, “The Church is the people, not the building (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).”
“I’ve also been reminding them that the building itself will not last; however the ministry and life-changing that takes place in this building has the capacity to last into eternity,” he said. “The fire has driven home this truth with a hammer.”
While many of Zion’s current members did not belong to the congregation during the first fire, others have what Pastor Kerns called “a ‘fire’ file in our memory banks.” He has been sensitive to the needs of both groups while leading them through this second trial.
“In crisis, our theology either becomes more real or it evaporates,” Pastor Kerns said. “I think I speak for nearly all of us in saying that our theology has become more real.”
He continued, “We believe that God is sovereign in every aspect of His creation. His love and care in the midst of suffering are an anchor in the midst of life’s storms. When we wonder if God sees and He cares, we simply look to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we are comforted.”
With this second fire, there was some good news. Fire doors and sprinklers had properly contained the fire so that the building was not a total loss. Still, Zion would have to find another place for worship, at least temporarily.
“As the fire was still burning J.D. Flynn (special assistant to Bishop James Conley) came to offer condolences,” Pastor Kerns recalled. “He said that the Diocese of Lincoln would like to offer the chapel at 3700 Sheridan Boulevard for our Sunday services.”
Other religious leaders, including Rabbi Craig Lewis of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on South Street, also offered worship space, but Pastor Kerns decided to accept the diocese’s offer of the chapel, and another offer of office space from a business right next door to Zion’s campus.
“The diocese was first and had a facility that we could use on Sunday mornings,” Pastor Kerns explained. “It didn’t take us long to realize that his was an extremely kind, gracious, and helpful offer!”
Zion has been holding two services in the chapel at John XXIII Center each Sunday since.
“Services have gone very smoothly at the chapel,” Pastor Kerns reported. “We are especially thankful for the kneelers: we kneel for confession of sin each week.”
Bishop Conley also spoke with Pastor Kerns personally.
“He wanted to make sure things were going well at the Sheridan chapel and just to hear about how I was doing,” Pastor Kerns said. “I was humbled by his kind pastoral care. We even chatted about the recent Lincoln Marathon (we both ran)!”
Pastor Kerns has been a key leader in interfaith relationships in the Lincoln area. It was his friendship with Msgr. Timothy Thorburn, vicar general, which encouraged Pastor Kerns to attend services welcoming Bishop Conley to the diocese in 2012.
“While it is true that the reformation divides us,” Msgr. Thorburn said, “our baptism in Jesus Christ unites us. Pastor Stu and I have the same ‘blood type’ in many ways and on many issues. We see that there are challenges in the world today that can be conquered only by those united in Christ, even if that unity is yet imperfect.
“‘Divide and conquer’ is the exceedingly successful tactic of the evil one,” he continued. “This small gesture of the diocese to fellow Christians at a time of need, I pray, also serves as a small bridge over that divide.”
Kerns also hosts a Saturday morning radio program on 1400 KLIN called Friendly Fire, a “safe zone” for exploring different theological beliefs. Bishop Conley was Pastor Kerns’ first guest when he launched the program in September of 2014. (The program is also released as a podcast at klin.com for those not tuned in at 7 a.m. Saturdays).
“We discuss the news of the week in the light of our faith,” Pastor Kerns said. “It has given me a reason to call and get acquainted with many pastors I would otherwise never meet.”
Clean-up from the smoke damage at Zion Presbyterian Church was completed several weeks ago. Their Opus 85 Bedient pipe organ has been cleaned and carefully wrapped in plastic to protect it from dry-walling, painting and other repairs —which won’t be done for some time.
“We are not able to do the repairs necessary yet because the investigators have not completed their investigation,” Pastor Kerns explained.
Fires are generally the result of mistakes, malice (arson), or mechanical failure.
“We don’t have any evidence of mistake or malice, so I tend to think it must have been a mechanical failure,” said Pastor Kerns. “The investigation has not yielded a cause yet, and it may never yield one.”
He asked for prayers that the investigation will be completed quickly so the church can move on with final restoration.
As thankful as the Zion congregation has been to be guests of the Diocese of Lincoln, they are eager to return to their own facility. Toward the end of the summer, they hope to be moved into their own small gymnasium, which was part of a new addition not affected by the fire.
“While it won’t have the aesthetic beauty of the 3700 Sheridan chapel, it will be very emotionally healing to be in our own building again,” Pastor Kerns said.
He added, “Zion is deeply grateful for the kindness and care we have received from the Diocese. While we continue to have significant theological differences, we also have significant common beliefs and interests. I hope we can continue to foster a strong relationship in the future!”