Faith and Fortitude: The First United Methodist Church of Sedalia

You could see it from several miles away. Clouds of white smoke billowing out of the rooftop of a safe haven in the middle of town — flames licking out of the upstairs windows, flashes of hot orange piercing an otherwise inky March evening.

The First United Methodist Church of Sedalia was burning to the ground.

As first responders began trying to salvage the disintegrating sanctuary, community members and congregants began to gather at its edges. Together, they watched the night rain limestone and brick, and with it, the memories of over 120 years of weddings, baptisms, funerals, outreach, and love crumble.

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Devastated but determined

Pastor Jim Downing had just shaken off a turbulent flight from Israel to New York City and was waiting for his next flight in the early hours of March 3, 2015. Like everyone else, he checked his phone to pass the time and was alarmed to see text message after text message alerting him about a tragedy in town — all of them alarming but none of them specific. Downing’s mind began to wander: Had someone from the community passed away? Did a busload of children go off the road?

With another three-and-a-half hour flight ahead of him, Downing finally got the devastating news: His beloved place of worship, the First United Methodist Church of Sedalia, was gone.

“My first question was ‘Was anyone hurt or killed?’ and the answer was no,” said Downing, still emotional months later. “I had another flight and a layover to think about what to do next.”

He found himself at a candlelight vigil later that evening, shoulder to shoulder with the people he’d counseled, loved, and prayed with — and for — over the 19 years he’d been a pastor at what he refers to as “First Church.” He cried with them, embraced them, and watched his community rally like he’d never seen.

“We have the most incredible first responders of any community I know of,” said Downing. “They did a magnificent job. That fire could have taken half of Sedalia. And as the firemen and police did their jobs, women from the church and community brought sandwiches and bottles of water so that when relief was rotating in and out they could refresh. They brought chairs and blankets. Just taking care of the people who were taking care of us.”

Sedalia Deputy Chief Greg Harrell, who has fought hundreds of fires during his years on the job, maintains that this blaze was different from the others. Harrell has been a member of First Church for over 20 years, and some of his wife’s family members pioneered the sanctuary when it was first built in 1888. As he and his department fought the furious blaze, Harrell knew the cost was much higher than shattered stained glass and hand-varnished pews.

“I have photos of my family — my wedding pictures and events with my children — from inside the building,” said Harrell. “The hardest part for me wasn’t actually the fire. It was seeing all of the other church members at sunup, surveying the damage. In retrospect, the crews did a great job protecting the community and I’m very proud of the job we did, but at the time, it was hard to face the aftermath.”

And that, of course, is what’s left: the aftermath. Who takes care of what comes next?

It takes a village

By the time Preuitt Insurance agent Sonny Broyles arrived at First Church, it was engulfed in flames. Helplessly, he watched it burn, knowing that the community would look to him — not only as the church’s insurance agent, but as a lifelong resident of Sedalia and a beloved congregant.

“When the community is looking to you — an agent, a community member, and a church member — to make things right, having a great support system is so important,” said Broyles. “Grinnell Mutual was right there. They cared. I filed the claim in very early the morning after the fire, and I got a telephone call very soon after. There was no stone left unturned.”

Claims Manager Glenda Blumer and Large Loss Specialist Mark Hunsaker didn’t simply do paperwork from a distance. They arrived in Sedalia before Pastor Jim’s plane had even landed. Hunsaker had found out about the fire from his daughter’s social media and realized Sedalia First United Methodist Church is part of Grinnell Mutual’s House of Worship (HOW) program, an insurance package that provides ministries with property and liability coverages.

“When we get a claim like this, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the insured,” said Hunsaker. “They’ve just gone through a terrible occurrence. Our job as claims people is to respond and to pay the claim as soon as we can based on sound claims practices.”

He and Blumer did exactly that. Piece by piece, they went over the intricacies of the HOW program and told Broyles what to expect in the coming days. The empathetic approach is what sets Grinnell Mutual apart, according to Blumer.

“I think we’re special in that we’re accessible anywhere,” Blumer said. “Adjusters who work in the field can call a manager, a director, even the CEO. We have that personal touch. It’s truly teamwork.”

Reinforcements arrive

It was a typical Thursday morning for Nate Orvis, executive vice-president of the Lee Agency (Muscatine, Iowa) until he received a phone call from client Sonny Broyles. After Broyles delivered the news about the devastating fire, Orvis and his team packed overnight bags and were on the road within a couple of hours. As soon as they arrived, members of the Lee Agency found themselves face to face with Preuitt Insurance owner Warren Preuitt and Broyles. Both were shell-shocked.

“You could instantly see they were personally connected to this church,” said Orvis. “It was not just an agent reaction. They were grieving as community members and for friends. Once Grinnell Mutual arrived, we all knew that we’d be far better off handling this together than we would on our own. So we did.

“As with any claim, we wanted to be a partner to Preuitt, but we also wanted to let Grinnell Mutual do its job,” said Orvis. “We’d been through a number of these large claims before with Grinnell, including our own church here in Muscatine. We knew what to expect and we knew Grinnell would do a fantastic job. The coverages, the loss control, the expertise — it’s all there.”

Rising from the ashes

The level of compassion throughout the ordeal is what resonated most with Broyles. A devastating event can make even the most steadfast lose hope, but Broyles maintains the fire’s aftermath strengthened the community and provided a powerful beacon of solidarity.

“I didn’t feel like my faith was shaken; I felt like it was enhanced,” Broyles said. “I felt like God was with us all the way. Grinnell came through for us. I felt like God was in the details there, too.”

Today, congregants of First Church use their second campus — the Celebration Center — to gather. It’s a place for not only worship, but for music, education, and friendship. The pain of losing the original sanctuary is still raw, however, and Pastor Downing is careful to say they won’t — and can’t — rebuild the original First Church.

Nevertheless, Downing and his team have big dreams for the new space including a rooftop garden that will be a “chapel under the stars.” The garden will serve as a beacon of sorts, a reminder that First Church literally rose from the ashes, Sedalia’s very own phoenix. And it will be a lasting reminder for the town that it, too — with a little help from its friends — could rise again.

Photo courtesy of the Sedalia Democrat

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