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Its Building Destroyed, a Lahaina Church Finds Sanctuary in a Cafe

by nytime
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The pastor Arza Brown had long told the congregants of Grace Baptist Church that if they left the sanctuary and gathered beneath Lahaina’s mango trees, that then their church would be under the mangoes, too.

“When we talk about the church,” Mr. Brown said on Sunday, “the building is not the church. The building is just where the church meets.”

This weekend, Grace Baptist was not inside the handsome blue structure two blocks from the Pacific where members had worshiped for 50 years. That building is now gone. And it was not beneath the mango trees on the lawn. Those trees are now scarred. But inside a coffee shop in Wailuku, over the mountains from Lahaina, the congregants were together all the same, singing “Amazing Grace,” reading from the Book of Psalms, and sharing stories of escape and loss and uncertainty.

In times of crisis — tsunami warnings, hurricanes, fires — Grace Baptist had been a refuge. And on Tuesday morning, when high winds battered Maui and fires ignited in the hills above, some residents turned to the church again for shelter. But around midday, Harry Timmins, an assistant pastor, noticed that the guests had suddenly left.

“We went outside and turn around and look, and there’s this giant black cloud and flames coming at us,” said Mr. Timmins, who has preached at Grace Baptist for about 30 years and who lived in the parsonage on church grounds.

He grabbed some paperwork from his home, which was later destroyed, and fled to safety. There was no time to save anything inside the church building.

On Sunday, from the makeshift pulpit inside Maui Coffee Attic in Wailuku, in a part of the island that dodged the fires, church member after church member recounted their narrow escapes.

One man described rushing his diaper-clad daughter to the car as ashes rained down on them. Another expressed thanks for the police officer who told his family to flee. Dave McCarthy described standing on the beach with his wife and three cats as the fire intensified, then piling into a speeding pickup truck to make it to safety.

“It’s God’s grace that we’re here,” Mr. McCarthy told fellow worshipers at the coffee shop, where nearly every seat was taken.

The service on Sunday was a mix of the ordinary and the exceptional. Members flipped to “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” in their hymnals, gave offerings and bowed their heads in prayer.

But the Scripture lesson was delivered on a small stage featuring a neon sign with a steaming cup. Members handed out tissues to friends wiping away tears. And beside the pastor on the stage, there was a large pile of donations — diapers, granola bars, toiletries — that worshipers were encouraged to take from after the service.

Mr. Timmins said it was not yet clear whether any church members were among the 93 people known so far to have died in the wildfire, which was the deadliest in the United States in more than a century. Nearly all who died have not been identified, and crews are continuing to search the rubble for victims.

Grace Baptist was one of several houses of worship lost in the flames in Lahaina, a former capital of the Hawaiian kingdom and home to a robust, diverse religious community.

Lahaina United Methodist Church, Lahaina Shingon Mission and Holy Innocents Episcopal Church, among others, are believed to be destroyed. Some other worship centers, including Maria Lanakila Catholic Church and two meeting houses for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, are said to have survived.

At the coffee shop on Sunday, Grace Baptist members who made it to safety described their gratitude for little miracles amid the horror — the just-in-time warning to flee, the low-on-gas car that made it out of the fire zone, the congregants who opened their spare bedroom to acquaintances who lost everything.

Mr. Brown, the pastor, who lost his house in the flames, invoked the biblical story of Job, the righteous man who endured trial after trial.

“God never makes a mistake, and I believe that today,” he said. “Now, if you’re asking me if I understand — no.”

For now, Grace Baptist members will keep meeting inside that coffee shop, a 23-mile drive from the charred remnants of their former sanctuary, which remains cut off from the rest of Maui by roadblocks.

But eventually, church leaders said, the congregation would return to Lahaina. And perhaps before there is a new building, Mr. Timmins said, they could put up a tent in the lawn, underneath the mango trees, and be a church there.

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