Church is where the people are, not the building.
That was a theme of Golgotha Baptist’s service Sunday, held at Calvary Baptist Church at South 65th Street and Pacific Avenue South, 2.5 miles from where their own worship hall was destroyed by fire early Thursday.
“The church is the people,” Pastor Pavel Sandu told his congregation in Romanian, with an English translator. “We are the church.”
Another theme was forgiveness.
Joshua Toves, 30, pleaded not guilty Friday to starting the fire at Golgotha, 1611 85th St. E., and nearby blazes inside a car and an abandoned house.
Toves allegedly told detectives he broke into the church and gathered paper, plastic and a picture frame and set them ablaze in what became a three-alarm fire that razed the building.
Church officials said the congregation, which today has about 300 people who attend services, saved for a decade to purchase the building last year and had rented church space prior. Calvary Baptist officials offered to share their church with Golgotha following the fire.
“I pray for all of us present here today to forgive the person who did this,” Sandu said of the blaze.
That’s easier for some than others, said Maria Jacot, whose 21-year-old son was to be married in the church Sept. 7.
“Depends on the heart of the individual,” she said. “I’m ready to forgive. It was just a building that was burnt. The church stays on. It makes us stronger, more united.”
She said that after the fire she found her son on the verge of tears, she assumed because the wedding plans would have to change.
“He said: ‘No, mama, not about my wedding. I’m upset about what happened, how the person could put fire on the church,’ ” she recalled.
They held the ceremony Saturday at Calvary Baptist Church instead — a bright spot in an otherwise challenging week.
“We had a wonderful wedding,” Jacot said. “The reception hall was full of people, gifts. Blessed, blessed wedding.”
Calvary Baptist might be home to other Golgotha functions and programs as the church prepares to rebuild. Conversations about a possible long-term agreement are ongoing.
The best part of church, hands down, is Sunday school, said 10-year-old Tabita Jalba.
She missed it this weekend, and hopes it starts again soon.
“We get to learn about God,” she said. “The teachers teach us from the Bible and to be more nice.”
Pastor Sandu started the service Sunday by calling all the children and young adults up to the front of the room with him.
“Many of them I saw crying in the parking lot of our church,” he said to those gathered. “I would like them not to cry today, and to trust in the same God that we trust in.”
For many in the congregation, such as Elvira Romarniuc, the church helps families settle when they move to America from Moldova, a country in Eastern Europe.
Romarniuc, who came here 12 years ago, is raising a family of her own with the support of Golgotha.
Her almost-3-year-old daughter fussed throughout the service in the hallway outside, as did many of the church’s children.
The abnormal hour for the service, 1:30 p.m., fell during naptime. Before the fire and subsequent shared church space, the service began at 8 a.m.
Golgotha members are comfortable at Calvary, where they’ve had holiday services before. But it’s not the same, Romarniuc said.
“Our pastor called us in the middle of the night and said to pray,” she remembered about learning of the fire.
The destruction was especially hard, she said, because of how much time and effort the congregation put into working on the new building.
They purchased it in April 2012 for $750,000.
Members repainted the building inside and out, redid the speaker system, and had just finished completely remodeling the bathrooms, among other renovations, when it burned.
“We all put a lot of hard work into fixing it,” Romarniuc said, recalling that one night her husband worked past midnight on the restoration. “They put in a lot of work into that church. It’s sentimental.”
Forgiveness isn’t a question for her, she said: “We don’t hold a grudge against anyone.”
The church still plans to pay off the purchase in eight years, their original timeline, and will most likely rebuild on the same ground, church spokesman Adrian Miclaus said. He said it took 10 or 12 years to raise the money for their own building. The church started in 2000.
It’s too soon to tell how much of the $1 million loss will be covered by insurance.
Pastor Sandu told Golgotha members that he’s gotten hundreds of phone calls and emails from people with other churches who want to help.
“It’s not over, it’s not finished,” he told his congregation. “Just a new chapter.”
Alexis Krell: 253-597-8268