Vandals broke into Desert Foothills United Methodist Church in Ahwatukee and emptied two fire extinguishers throughout the building, disrupting not only Sunday services but a number of community organizations that meet there as well.
But as much of a hassle as the vandalism created, it didn’t stop Pastor Kristin D. Longenecker Hansen or her congregation from their essential missions – serving God and the community at large.
“It is a huge mess,” said Hansen, explaining that virtually any moveable object in the church – including the sound and other electronic gear and even books – had to be removed and cleaned since the fire retardant, while not toxic, can irritate anyone who breathes it in.
At least Hansen wasn’t roused from bed when the retardant set off fire alarms, bringing Phoenix firefighters to the scene.
That task fell to Kevin Chadwick, chair of the trustees and the emergency contact.
“He went down there, called the insurance company and took care of anything else that had to be done that night. He didn’t wake me up with the news until 7 a.m.,” Hansen said.
Dismayed but undaunted by the vandals, the congregation moved quickly into action as Phoenix Police continued their investigation.
A church committee that helps arrange activities secured the help of Early Baker, a restaurant on E. Chandler Boulevard and 40th Street that basically offered private party accommodations so the congregants could gather on Sunday morning for an abbreviated service that drew about 100 congregants and even an official from the United Methodist Church’s district office.
“We bought some refreshments and we prayed, sang two songs and most of the time we spent talking,” said Hansen.
While she didn’t give a sermon, Hansen said she reminded the congregation, “We are the church, not the building” and encouraged members to continue doing good works in defiance of the thoughtless, vicious act of a few miscreants.
Hansen expects the church will be cleaned up in time for one service, at 10 a.m., this Sunday.
The bigger disruption involved a number of church and community groups that use the church for weekly meetings – including Boy Scout Troop 16, with Troop 16 Boy Scouts, Village Preschool, Alcoholics Anonymous, Prickly Piecers Quilters, music lessons with pianist Andy O’Brien and drummer Chris Reidy, and others.
Some groups were expected to meet in one wing that cleaners managed to restore, but others likely wouldn’t be able to return until next week.
News of the vandalism set off a torrent of reaction on social media, especially on the Ahwatukee 411 Facebook page, as some lamented what they perceive as an increase in crime in Ahwatukee and far more offered to help.
“This little church does so much outreach especially for foster kids, our sister church in Mexico, etc. It breaks my heart that a place of worship would be treated like this,” said congregant Gerry Elam, who predicted the vandals would brag about their thoughtless act and hoped that if anyone hears anything, they would call police.
“I honestly hope it was teenagers just being idiots and not adults,” one resident remarked while another lamented, “Sadly, crime is getting worse everywhere the more the Phoenix area grows and teenagers do some weird crap when they get bored.”
Another said, “As parents we need to teach our children respect for others. And bring your children to church.”
But another poster said, “Can’t rush to judgment that it’s kids. Could be disgruntled adult.”
And another wrote, “You guys are always so respectful and willing to let us skateboard in the front of the church, then some idiot teenagers go inside and do this. Kids these days have no respect for anything.”
Pastor of Desert Foothills United Methodist the last three years, Hansen said she has never encountered church vandalism in the two decades she has been a pastor.
“My church was vandalized when I was a girl, but I never had anything like this happen to a church where I was assigned,” she said.
Hansen said the one thing the church could use is muscle once the cleaners are done – probably late Saturday – when all the things that were moved out have to be moved back.
She said she would be posting times and dates on the church’s Facebook page later this week.
Meanwhile, she also hoped that people who want to help in other ways think of the greater community and not just her church.
Expressing gratitude to the firefighters and police, the ServiceMaster cleanup crews and their families and everyone else who has helped, Hansen said, “The best thing everyone can do to support us right now is do good in our community and continue good work, spread kindness, volunteer and pray and send good thoughts.”
And, not surprisingly, pray for the vandals who did this.