A July 29th fire at Grace & Holy Spirit Church in Cortland caused an estimated $100,000 in damages, but faith and community spirit are stronger than ever, according to the church’s rector, the Rev. Peter Williams. “I’m just amazed at the spirit of our people and the spirit of the Cortland community. People are pulling together and helping each other and it’s really, really wonderful.”
Grace & Holy Spirit is the home to Cortland Loaves & Fishes, a soup kitchen serving meals six days a week, as well as an Episcopal-Lutheran congregation. Damage to the building prevents occupation for now and that means the church’s ministries are facing a challenge. “I have seen firsthand what our church provides the community in the sense of 12 step groups and Loaves & Fishes,” says parishioner Susan Wilson. “I saw folks handed a few bucks last week when their food source [Loaves & Fishes] was closed and they sat on the street wondering when they would eat again… I hugged folks last Sunday who have always sought comfort in our church.”
But the community is already rising to the occasion. SUNY Cortland’s Interfaith Center is hosting the congregation’s worship services; local churches, nonprofits and businesses are all pitching in to carry on key ministries. The Cortland Fire Department fed over sixty Loaves & Fishes guests immediately following the fire, and the soup kitchen is now temporarily operating out of the nearby Presbyterian Church.
Community relationships are strengthening in the wake of the fire. “God is moving in this,” says Fr. Williams. He’s excited about deepening shared ministry with the nearby Presbyterian church and the SUNY Cortland campus ministries. And further afield, “We’ve received a lot of encouragement from other churches in the region that have had fires, including Grace Episcopal Church in Syracuse and Redeemer Lutheran in Rochester.”
With cleanup and restoration, it could be months before the congregation returns to its building. But in the end, says Wiliams, “We still have a faith community together with Grace and Holy Spirit’s people. Nothing has changed with that. A few people have shed tears over the damage to our building, but overall people are realizing that we’re all still here and we still have a mission. Building or no building, the mission is going to go on.”
Says parishioner Wilson, “Of course it’s the Spirit that uses us to do all of these things… No fire can destroy that.”