Members of Naschitti Christian Reformed Church in Naschitti, N.Mex., will gather for their weekly service this Sunday morning in a tent. That’s because their church building was heavily damaged in a fire that authorities say was set by an arsonist earlier this week.
Located in a relatively remote area between Gallup and Shiprock, N.Mex., the Naschitti church was not the only structure targeted. The congregation’s former church building and two abandoned buildings, all about 50 yards away from the current church, were also set ablaze. All three of those older buildings burned to the ground, as did a Naschitti convenience store, which caught fire the previous night, Monday evening, Aug. 19. The current Naschitti CRC church building is still standing but has sustained substantial smoke damage.
Investigators for the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), as well as San Juan County officials and Navajo tribal police, spent the better part of two days combing through the gutted structures and the damaged church.
In a press release, the FBI stated, "Law enforcement is asking for the public's help in finding the person or persons responsible for a series of fires that damaged several buildings in Naschitti, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation, this week."
As investigators combed through the ruins of the buildings and went in and out of the church, community members stood nearby and watched, trying to take it all in.
“People were sad when the store burned [on Monday night], but now that the church is burned, they are upset. The whole community is surprised and upset; they saw this as their church too,” said Jerome Sandoval, an elder and president of the church council at Naschitti CRC.
Sandoval said he suspects many people in Naschitti will be on hand on Sunday to worship in the tent.
“Most of us who worship at the Naschitti CRC have family that have worshiped here since the 1920s,” he said. “Most of our grandparents and parents have always been a part of the Christian Reformed Church. The community was attached to the buildings, since many of their grandparents had gone there at one time or another.”
World Renew is in the process of responding to the fires and has set up its website (United States / Canada) so that people can donate to rebuild the church. Disaster Response Services is considering getting involved in assessing the damage.
Carol Bremer-Bennett, director of World Renew-U.S., stated, "The Disaster Response Services of World Renew is called to stand with our sisters and brothers in times of crisis. We are ready to find ways to support this congregation so that their place of worship can be restored."
Sandoval said rumors are flying as to who may have set the fires, but so far no one has been arrested. “We have no idea who did this or why,” he said.
The first fire broke out shortly before midnight on Monday, Aug. 19, at the Naschitti Trading Post, located northeast of the church. The only grocery store in the area, it was declared a total loss by 4:30 a.m., said officials.
The next night, a fire was reported racing through one of the buildings that housed the former parsonage. Soon flames spread to the former church building and another abandoned building.
Sandoval, who lives about a mile from the church, was awakened after midnight on Wednesday morning by a phone call from someone telling him about the fire.
When he arrived at the site, he saw flames racing from one of the three buildings and one firefighter training water on the fire. When the water ran out, the firefighter had to leave to get more water from a hydrant about a mile away.
Meanwhile, the other two buildings, including the former church, caught fire, and flames reached high into the night sky.
After about an hour, another fire department from about 50 miles away arrived, but by then the three fires were beyond extinguishing.
As he stood there, said Sandoval, he learned that his son, Lionel, had walked over to the current church, opened in the late 1960s, and had seen that someone had broken a window and apparently thrown in some type of accelerant.
Sandoval said they raced over and opened the door to the church, only to be confronted by a wall of black smoke. A police officer entered and was able to see that much of the smoldering fire in this building was out, perhaps smothered by the thick blanket of smoke, and that most of the damage had occurred in the front of the sanctuary near the pulpit.
“Once investigators left, we were able to go in there on Thursday afternoon,” said Sandoval. Some of the walls were blistered and covered with smoke damage; the floor is damaged, as are the fixtures and furniture. “The structure is still good, but we will need to do a lot of work inside.”
Sandoval said he has no idea how much it will cost to raze the three buildings that now lie in ruins and what it will take to fix the current church.
“I thought we had insurance, but when I checked into it, I saw our insurance stopped in July 2018,” said Sandoval.
Cost of insurance is hard to afford, he said, because there is no fire department or even a water supply nearby. “We are very hard to get to,” said Sandoval.
The fires did more than damage buildings. These structures represented the past -- going back decades to the founding of the CRC in New Mexico, said Sandoval, an evangelist who served for several years as pastor of the Naschitti church.
About 30 to 40 people worship regularly at the church, and the community uses it for funeral services.
In addition, said Sandoval, “there are four other Christian churches in the area. Three of these churches have leaders and pastors who grew up in our church. Many of their members mention the CRC as a place where they began to know Jesus.”
Over the years, the Naschitti congregation invested time and energy into updating the current church building so that they could worship comfortably there and make visitors feel welcome.
“Our whole community is hurting today,” he said.