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An 'unexpected' journey; Family Life congregation walks by faith after church fire

Pastor Amos Self gazes at the charred remains of Verndale's Family Life Church building Tuesday, a week after flames caused by faulty electrical wiring destroyed the entire property. Photo by Dain Sullivan

All was quiet around Verndale's Family Life Church building Tuesday. The only movement in the area came from an American flag perched near the building's front door. It swayed slowly in the calm afternoon breeze.

On a normal day at the church, there might have been a number of youth activities taking place or congressional members meeting up for prayer or church meetings. But on this particular day, all that could be found was a dense coating of ash that covered the stairway leading to the children's nursery, rows of charred seats facing an empty doorway, and blackened pieces of siding spread across the property grounds.

"Unexpected." It was one of the first words to come out of Pastor Amos Self's mouth Tuesday as he walked up to the front doors of the 72-year-old building, which had caught fire a week earlier when faulty electrical wire ignited the ceiling of the church's basement nursery. Flames engulfed the entire building, leaving little to be salvaged, said Self, who was reading a book at his home when he heard about the fire.

"Of course, you're not going to believe when someone calls and says the church is on fire," he said.

Self added he has spent the last two years of his life as pastor for the church, which serves members from as far away as Clarissa.

The fire was especially unfortunate for the congregation, considering they had just finished a major upgrade project for the building. New air conditioning units, 150 mint chairs, a recently built crib and an entire instrument collection were among the items destroyed in the fire.

While Self admitted it had been a challenging week, he said it was fortunate no one was injured or killed in the fire.

"This is just stuff," he said.

As the pastor walked into the children's nursery and stared at a gaping hole in the ceiling, Athena Demel, voluntary secretary for the church, stood nearby in disbelief.

"My daughter was in here almost every day," Demel said. "Thank God it happened when it did."

When thinking about the fire, Self and other church members turn to their beliefs for an explanation. While the official cause of the fire was an electrical malfunction, Self regularly aimed blame toward the "enemy."

In this case, the group has a name for their enemy: "Lucifer."

"God's been blessing the work that's been happening here, and we firmly believe that this was an attack of the enemy to try and shut the church down," Self said. "We very much believe in God and the scriptural account of Satan and angels."

Self and Demel recounted situations prior to the fire when church members continually overcame challenges in the name of their faith. Baptisms took place in a river when the church could not secure an indoor baptismal fountain, communion was held in the snow when having enough space became a problem, and multiple financial meetings had been held to prepare for the building's planned expansion project.

But none of that matters to the people of Family Life Church now, Self said, adding that moving forward and maintaining their vision is key.

"We know it's going to be a long haul," he said, adding that the first order of business will involve clean-up efforts.

Anyone in the community and surrounding area who has a pair of gloves, an extra pickup truck or an interest in serving food is invited to help clear the building from 9 a.m. to noon Dec. 1, Self said.

In the meantime, Self and other church members have gotten strong support from the community. Lake Country Insurance in Verndale has provided the congregation with office space, and leaders at Verndale School welcomed the members to hold church services in their auditorium.

Self is thankful for the temporary space to work and worship, and added that the congregation's goal of either rebuilding the church or purchasing another building will take months. He is also thankful the parsonage, which sits only feet from the church, was not damaged.

Kenneth Kjeldergaard, another pastor for Family Life Church, admitted the area is a little smoky, but he clings to humor as he appreciates the fact one property is still standing.

"Pastor Amos' office smells like beef jerky," he chuckled.

The members of Family Life Church lost a building, but Self maintains he is happy they will still be able to practice what they believe; spreading the word of faith.

"A building is not meant to last forever, but your salvation is eternal," he said. "That's what counts."