Charred church still radiates warmth

Humilda Lopez supervises mentally disabled adults from Day Habilitation Without Walls. Her clients volunteer at the Lutheran church’s soup kitchen. Photo by Victor Chu

Norwood’s Lutheran Church of the Epiphany on Bainbridge Avenue isn’t large, isn’t grand. But the church, located at 302 E. 206th Street, is beloved.

That much is clear two weeks after a fire wrecked the church’s basement. Neighbor groups use the house of worship to eat, play and pray. Temporarily displaced, they’ve rallied behind Norwood’s Lutherans.

“The church has been good to us,” said Humilda Lopez, who supervises ten mentally disabled adults. “When we heard about the fire, we were very upset.”

Lopez and church Deacon Anthony Bopp have quietly integrated Bainbridge Avenue. Lopez’ clients, who belong to the Institute of Applied Human Dynamics program Day Habilitation Without Walls, volunteer with Bopp’s basement soup kitchen. They wipe down tables, arrange silverware and sweep up.

“The church welcomed us years ago,” Lopez said. “We go twice a week. It’s beautiful. We enjoy it so much. The soup kitchen is like a family.”

Day Habilitation Without Walls finds mentally disabled adults volunteer gigs.

“They work,” said Lopez. “They have fun. They learn. They feel important and part of the community.”

According to Lopez, Bopp welcomed her clients unreservedly. They’ve grown accustomed to visiting the church.

“We hope the soup kitchen reopens soon,” Lopez said. “My guys keep saying, ‘We miss the church.’”

After the fire, which occurred on January 3, Lopez and IAHD’s Cara Levy asked Bopp how they could help. No luck.

“He turned it around on us,” Levy said, “He promised to find our guys extra volunteer work.”

Lopez’ crew will dust pews until St. Stephen’s Meals, the soup kitchen, reopens.

“The disabled adults are outstanding,” Bopp said. “One young gentleman always plays the piano. The way they interact with our neighbors is phenomenal.”

St. Brendan’s Catholic Church has absorbed an Alcoholics Anonymous support group put out by the blaze. Bainbridge Avenue’s Holy Nativity Episcopal Church has agreed to host Boot Camp, a neighborhood exercise group for women.

Bopp held a lunch party for workers cleaning the church’s smoky sanctuary. Sal’s Pizza on Bainbridge Avenue donated four pizza pies. Neighbor after neighbor has approached Bopp to offer help. He had to post a sign recently: no more thrift shop donations.

“People have certainly come to our aid,” Bopp said. “They’ve donated enough jackets to fill up a room.”

The sanctuary is in good shape; workers will refurbish the basement this month and next. The church held a heat-less service Sunday, January 4 together with the Ebenezer Presbyterian Church of Ghana, another tenant.

“It was nice,” said Seth Atakora, one of the Presbyterian congregation’s elders. “Although it was cold, we were glad to be there.”

The fire department has still not determined the cause of the blaze. It appears to have been accidental. No one was inside the church at the time.

Assuming the church completes its comeback, Bopp will remember these weeks fondly.

“One neighbor came by,” he said. “A neighbor for 30 years. ‘I’ve always heard nice things about your church,’ she said. ‘But I’ve never been inside. I woke up Saturday, saw the fire engine and it dawned on me.’ That Sunday, she came to church.”

The church will hold a neighborhood celebration when the basement work is complete, Bopp said.

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