Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church sits in the middle of Belfast suburbia beside a busy arterial road in and out of the city. On the night of Thursday 21st July 2016 the church was broken into and a fire started in the kitchen. Fortunately, the Fire Service was quickly on the scene, the fire was contained, and relatively little damage was done. After an intensive two days of deep cleaning the Church buildings were made ready for the start of a Scripture Union children’s mission, Newtownbreda CSSM, starting on the Monday. However, early on the following Sunday morning the Church was attacked again this time two fires were started, one in the Church hall and the second in the sanctuary. The fire damage was significant and the smoke damage extensive.
The immediate reaction of members of the congregation was one of shock and anger. It was difficult to understand why someone would want to attack our Church building which was used by all sections of our local community during the week. There was also a sense of vulnerability. What had been a safe space for many people had been attacked and violated. There was a real sense of sadness as a group of Church members gathered on the steps outside the Church on the Sunday afternoon to pray. We wanted to pray for our Church members but also for those who a perpetrated the attack. As followers of Jesus Christ we have been forgiven and we wanted to have a forgiving attitude, even to those who had harmed our premises.
We were greatly strengthened and encouraged by the support and help of the surrounding community. The local Church of Ireland Parish Church changed the time of their Sunday morning service to allow us to use their Church for Sunday morning worship for a few weeks. Then the local primary school, allowed us the use of their buildings for the best part of a year. We received help and encouragement from all sides of the community and local politicians. We were also determined that our work with children and young people would remain throughout this time, and so we continued to offer a broad range of youth and children's programmes to our community.
And so the rebuilding process began. Having got over the initial shock we, as a local congregation, started thinking about the future and about what sort of Church God wanted us to be. In conversation with architects and others we started to understand the importance of the actual space we occupied. Its openness and accessibility; its appearance and atmosphere, all have an impact on how comfortable people feel coming into the building and how at home they are when there. We therefore took the opportunity to completely redesign the interior of the sanctuary to make it more community orientated to make an open, welcoming, flexible and contemporary space.
We turned the interior of the church around 180 degrees. One of the side effects of this was that everyone now came into the building through the same door where previously two doors had been used. This helped us all in feeling one congregation, one family. A stage the full width of the church was constructed on which the worship band, musical instruments, communion table and lectern could be placed, but again were easily movable depending on need. The heavy wooden chairs, many of which had been fire damaged anyway, were replaced with light, easily movable stackable chairs in three different colours. LED lighting was installed which can be used in different ways, again depending on the need.
Initially, was everyone convinced that this was all a good idea? Probably not. Did everyone get behind the project from the start? I think I can say that yes, the vast majority of the congregation did get behind the plans and have supported it, not least financially.
The Rev. Willis Cordner was ‘commissioned’ to make new Church furniture. He designed and constructed a new communion table, a lectern and baptismal font from the most beautiful Irish Elm wood. He was thrilled a few months ago to conduct a service in Saithfield Road using the lectern he had made.
The building work was completed, and the building re-opened in May 2018, though with an additional cost of £300K over the insurance costs. In the past year as well as having Sunday worship we have had Café Church, Messy Church, a Community Fun Day, musical events and in the Spring 2019 the local primary school used Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church buildings to put on several performances of The Lion King.
When Joseph confronted his brother who had sold him into slavery he said, “As far as I am concerned, God turned into good what was meant for evil.” (Genesis 50: 20 NLT). There is a real sense amongst the members of Saintfield Road Presbyterian Church that God has turned into good what others obviously intended for evil. We do not want to be defined by the arson attacks, but God used the fires to act as a catalyst to help us to think about how best we could serve a world in need. Following the fires, we launched our Vision 2020 which has three aspects, Worship; Sending; Serving,
We strive to be a welcoming church where we can help people of all ages and backgrounds meet Jesus Christ through our worship, Bible teaching friendship and that together we can grow bot as individuals and as a church family. We hope that those living in and around the Church building will feel welcome to come. We are committed to mission overseas as we partner with and support people working in Japan, India and Kenya. We want to serve our local community in whatever way we can.
As well as having a new Church building, we also have a new minister, although that had nothing to do with the fires! At the start of September 2019 the Rev Ben Walker was installed as minister of SRPC and we look forward to all that God is going to do in the years ahead.