East Portland congregation holds Easter ‘tent meeting’

Witness the determination of these outer East Portland parishioners to celebrate Easter services on the front lawn – in front of their arson-charred church …

An arsonist is blamed for igniting the siding of the Eastside Free Methodist Church – a blaze that burned up the side of the building and eventually through the roof.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

While on the way to another call in the Hazelwood neighborhood, a Portland Police Bureau East Precinct officer noticed an odd flickering light coming from near the back of the Eastside Free Methodist Church, at 1:46 a.m. on February 21.

After driving back into the parking lot to look, the officer reported that the church – located at 650 SE 139th Avenue – was on fire.

Hours after firefighters left, this is what remained of the interior of the Eastside Free Methodist Church. Church provided photo

“When crews arrived, they saw fire coming from one side of the building,” said Portland Fire & Rescue Public (PF&R) Information Officer Lt. Damon Simmons. “Firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the main body of the fire, but stayed through the night extinguishing hot spots.”

It didn’t take long for PF&R’s Arson Squad investigator to rule that the fire that started outside the building – and was intentionally set.

46-year-old Jaime Farfan Calderon was arrested after confessing to starting the blaze. MCDC booking photo

Later that afternoon, Simmons said that 46-year-old Jaime Farfan Calderon confessed to starting the fire, and was booked into the Multnomah County Detention Center (MCDC) on counts of Felony Arson and Reckless Burning. Calderon remains in custody, in lieu of $110,000 combined bail.

With the church damaged, and utilities cut off, the congregation began meeting at Lynwood Friends Church, a few blocks to the east at 835 SE 162nd Avenue.

Members and staff of the Eastside Free Methodist Church invited everyone to attend their Easter morning “tent service”.

But, when considering just where to hold Easter morning services, Pastor John Unger said their congregation of about 50 members decided to hold a “tent meeting” – much like revivals held under canvas, in days gone by – right on the charred church’s front lawn.

Before the service, as volunteers were serving breakfast in the event tent, Pastor Unger stepped inside the empty building, and told how they’d remodeled it just last year, included new paint, carpeting, chairs and sound systems. All of that was ruined in the fire.

Standing in the lobby of their church, Pastor John Unger recalls being called on the morning of the fire.

“It’s not uncommon for a pastor to get at 2 a.m. phone call; but I never got the one like I got the morning of the fire,” Unger told East Portland News as he walked through the dark building.

“When we got here, my wife Ellen and I both felt a lot of peace,” recalled Unger. “It’s amazing how many things mitigated to keep it from being worse that night.”

The fire not only displaced their church services, but also those of a Hispanic church, as well as large Narcotics Anonymous and Alcohol Anonymous meetings

The fire has displaced many community groups that meet at the church.

“It could take six to eight months to repair,” Unger said. “But, we were eager to ‘come home’ for Easter.”

They’re not angry with Calderon, the alleged arsonist, Unger remarked. “He is a person worth praying for.

“And, we’re praying that from this situation will come good,” Unger went on. “We’ve never done a ‘tent service’ before; so it’s an adventure for us. As a congregation, we’re trying new things and expecting good things, as we see where this adventure will lead us together in Christ.”

Pastor Carolyn McCulloch and Jan Plumbley serving breakfast treats.

The church’s “Praise Team” leads songs as the service begins.

After breakfast, the church’s “Praise Team” led the gathering in song.

Subsequently, members took free-will offering. Many in the audience held back tears as they watched a video presentation which included security camera video from the night of the fire, as well as the subsequent cleanup efforts, set to the music of Enya’s song, “Only Time”.

Pastor John Unger delivers his Easter message, taken from the book of Isaiah.

“Jesus is bestowing on us a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning,” Pastor Unger began his Easter morning worship service message, taken from Isaiah 61:3.

To learn more about this church, see their official website: CLICK HERE. The church is accepting donations at “GoFundMe”: CLICK HERE to open their page.

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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