East Village’s Middle Collegiate Church begins healing after devastating fire

Comfort in a time of loss among members of Middle Collegiate Church.
Comfort in a time of loss among members of Middle Collegiate Church, which was gutted by a six-alarm fire on Dec. 5, 2020.
Photo by Tequila Minsky

Their sanctuary may lie in scorched ruins, but the congregation of Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village keeps the faith, and their ministry, going.

The morning after a six-alarm fire that began in a nearby structure and gutted their 128-year-old church, Middle Collegiate Church planned an 11:45 a.m. worship service, held virtually during the pandemic. According to Reverend Jacqueline Lewis, the church’s senior pastor, the service offers a way for residents to mourn the devastation but also pray for greater unity and rebuilding going forward.

Lewis thanked the many New Yorkers who offered sympathy and support following the devastating Dec. 5 blaze. The Middle Collegiate Church is one of the original religious congregations in New York history and a beacon of the local progressive movement — welcoming people of all backgrounds, regardless of race, color or sexual orientation.

The building may be ruined by the blaze, but the church itself — its people — remain in tact and united in love and faith, Reverend Amanda Ashcraft, Middle Collegiate’s executive director minister, said on Dec. 5 while surveying the damage.

Reverend Amanda Hambrick Ashcraft, Executive Director Minister at Middle Collegiate Church.Photo by Tequila Minsky
Across 2nd Ave. from their beloved church, amidst the sadness and future uncertainty, Sr. Minister Jacqueline Lewis (in red hat) sings with choir.Photo by Tequila Minsky

“God is showing us, with the first responders and the volunteers who brought food and coffee and with the many ways this community is already showing up and coming together after this immense tragedy,” Ashcraft said. “We also know and we’ve learned, even in new ways since the onset of COVID, that God is in no way contained by four walls and a church building. This amazing movement of love and justice that is Middle Church is going to continue to show up in different ways after this tragedy.”

Asked about the church’s future, Ashcraft said that remains unclear given not just the fire, but the unrest related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, she affirmed that the congregation will go on.

“I know that it’s really really hard to swallow — especially in a year that has already seen so much racial, and economic, and climate injustice,” Ashcraft said. “We’re still living in the middle of this horrific global pandemic and to have this happen to your faith community makes you really wonder what the hell is going on. We can say, even so, we will be okay and we will rise from the ashes.”

The outpouring of support from people across the city and the world for Middle Collegiate Church has been humbling and greatly appreciated, according to Reverend Lewis. 

Lewis invited all on Twitter to participate in a church conference on social justice in April 2021, and to donate not just to Middle Church but also the Women’s Prison Association, which operates the nearby Hopper House where 22 women were sheltered and was also damaged by the fire.

But the reverend also suggested that the church could also use greater spiritual support for its mission. 

“So many have asked how to help @middlechurch: First and foremost, you can put your shoulder next to ours in the fight against racism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia and every sinful hatred,” Lewis said. 

The church’s 11:45 a.m. service will be broadcast on Facebook and YouTube, and at middlechurch.org.

Totally gutted and devastated. Historic Middle Collegiate Church felled by a fire that struck around 4:30 am. Saturday morning.Photo by Tequila Minsky
Nine hours later, fire fighters still adding water to the smoldering embers at the vacant building on 2nd Avenue and East 7th Street where the Dec. 5, 2020 fire broke out.Photo by Tequila Minsky

With reporting by Tequila Minsky