It filled Alvina Slivers with gratitude to see that it only took minimal wiping to clean the communion table and put it back into service again at Naschitti (N.Mex.) Christian Reformed Church.
That table, with the words Do This in Remembrance of Me etched in it, had stood close to where an arsonist’s firebomb went off, filling the sanctuary of the church with dense smoke on the night of Aug. 20, 2019.
The smoke was so thick, in fact, that it snuffed out a blaze that could have destroyed the small church on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Even so, the sanctuary, fellowship hall, and classrooms were heavily damaged.
“The table was in front of the podium closest to the chairs that burned the worst,” said Slivers, who began attending Naschitti CRC several years ago with her grandmother.
That the table was spared from serious damage was one of many things following the fire — for which no suspect has yet been arrested — that have bolstered her faith, said Slivers.
“The fire was bad, but I felt that our faith was so strong that we didn’t let that get us down. We put our faith into action,” said Slivers, who drives a bus for the Navajo tribal Head Start program.
The faith of which she speaks was especially in evidence just before Thanksgiving when the sanctuary, now restored, was filled for a service full of joy and hope. Churches from all over the area joined Naschitti members for the celebration.
But it took effort from many people — and faith in God — to get there following the tragedy.
The fire in the church was one of three that took place over two nights last summer. First, on the evening of Aug. 19, the Naschitti Trading Post — the community’s main source for groceries, gasoline, and other items — went up in flames. The trading post is on the property next to the church.
Then on the next night, someone firebombed the former Naschitti church, the parsonage and another structure nearby, which are no longer in use. Before firefighters could extinguish it, the fire had engulfed those buildings beyond the possibility of repair.
Meanwhile, someone noticed that the current church was also a target of the arsonist, who had thrown a bottle of flammable liquid through a window and onto the chairs in the front of the sanctuary. When police and others entered the church building through the back door, they were met with a thick wall of smoke.
Located in the rolling desert more than 40 miles north of Gallup, Naschitti has a population of under 400 people, most of whom are Native American. Besides the CRC congregation, there is a Pentecostal church, a Mormon congregation, a Baptist church, and a Roman Catholic church in the area. A tribal elementary school is a focal point of the community.
The troubling occurrence of these fires shook the Naschitti CRC members as well as others in the close-knit community. “After the fires, people were angry and asking, ‘Why did someone do this?’ and ‘Who was it?’” said Jerome Sandovol, an elder and chair of the council at Naschitti CRC.
But even as the smoke from the fires was settling, the church made plans to erect a canopy under which to hold the next Sunday’s service—and they haven’t missed a Sunday since. They met once in a Navajo tribal building, and then under the canopy a few more times — and then they were able to move into the church’s fellowship hall once it was cleared of smoke damage.
Throughout the ordeal, said Sandoval, he was impressed by how well people fared — and, as the weeks went on, he did what he could to keep their spirits up, he said.
“I told people constantly that we have to believe in God to set things in place and help us to recover,” said Sandoval. “It wasn’t me or anything I said -- it was God doing it, and our prayers were answered.”
But it took a number of people and commitment, bolstered by faith, to get the sanctuary and the rest of the church in shape.
Harv and Verla Klaver, as World Renew Disaster Response Services supervisors, were called to inspect the church and nearby buildings to help with assessing damages. When they arrived in late August, said Harv, they were “overwhelmed and bewildered and sad” to see the destruction.
“At that time, nothing had been done to clean up or remove any debris. Because the smoke damage was far worse than the fire damage and was a health hazard, we realized we needed a professional fire restoration company to remove the smoke damage.”
After a company from Colorado had come and had cleaned out the smoke damage in the sanctuary, World Renew volunteers arrived to help repair the church in late October.
The work in the sanctuary included repairing the ceiling and walls with new drywall, texture, and paint. They also replaced all the electrical outlets, switches, and breakers.
Since the sanctuary floor had been damaged, they replaced the flooring and also painted the interior of the church.
“God’s hand was everywhere,” said Harv. “We worked in safety, with good timing and the right skills at the right time.”
Once the sanctuary was repaired, church members helped to do the final cleaning, including that of the communion table, and then they invited churches from the area to celebrate with them on Nov. 17 for the service of joy and thanksgiving.
Vibeka Mitchell, Sandoval’s daughter, was at the service. She lives in Albuquerque, where she attends a CRC congregation, and she attends the Naschitti church when she visits her parents.
Being part of both churches allows her to grow in faith in each location, she said. In an email, she explained, “Naschitti will always be home for me, so this event [the fire] was hard for me to witness — but seeing the Lord’s blessing come to life in our home church shows he is alive.”
The restored sanctuary is a gift to the church and offers a more pleasant atmosphere for worship.
“The sanctuary had been kind of dark and had carpet on the floor. Also, it was somewhat hard to hear in there,” said Gary Hoeksema, who has been the interim pastor at Naschitti since January. “Now there is a brand-new wood floor. Things are bright, and the acoustics are great.”
Serving the church from before the fire and through this time of rebuilding, Hoeksema said he has seen a small group of deeply committed people who are linked to God, to one another, and to the area in which they live.
Never did he sense the Naschitti members experiencing doubt or despair after the fire, he said. “The Holy Spirit was there, and it didn’t make a difference whether they were worshiping under a canopy, in the tribal chapter house, or in the fellowship hall -- God was in their midst.”
Already it seems that Naschitti members have shown — through this time of trial — a strong faith that has spread and is starting to touch others in the community. People who haven’t been there for a time have begun worshiping there again. It’s possible they have seen how members of this congregation, even in the face of arson, have relied on a faith in God that has grown in them over the years, said Hoeksema.
Hoeksema said he is pleased to be serving a church that has shown strength in a time of adversity. And throughout this time he has focused on preaching sermons about facing hard things and finding hope in the Lord’s promises.
“As the Lord has given me breath, I’m willing to do whatever God would have me do here,” he said.
As the Advent season begins, Naschitti members — led by Hoeksema — are eager to celebrate Christ’s birth in their newly remodeled worship space. It has been a hard year for them, but the smoke damage has been cleared, things have been cleaned, and the way forward looks bright.