Hope burns brightly at Branches UMC




Branches UMC's temporary home

Nearly 18 months after fire damaged the Branches United Methodist Church in Florida City, its congregation persists in sharing hope with the surrounding community.

The fire happened during the early morning hours of Pentecost Sunday on May 23, 2010, destroying the main church building and damaging the adjacent $100,000 playground. That same day, members and friends of the church proceeded with worship near the charred remains.

Looking back, the Rev. Audrey Warren, pastor of the church, is not surprised that the church continues to be the hands and feet of Jesus despite the setback.

“I remember the Sunday when the fire happened, one of our youth members came up to me and said, ‘the church isn’t the building but the people,’” Warren said. “That is what we said among ourselves as the church burned.

“God is bigger than anything that happens. God will sustain us. We will continue to proclaim God’s word.”
In the immediate aftermath of the fire, some church members felt angry that Branches and its outreach programs might be in jeopardy. The church houses the Branches program, a holistic ministry that provides opportunities for children, youth and families to know Christ, become better educated, and make positive life choices.

Those who were angry wanted to know who started the blaze and seek justice, Warren said. But during the Pentecost service, Warren told the congregation that people not comfortable with forgiveness should avoid participating in that day’s communion. Everyone at the service came forward.

Joyful after school program participants.

Even now, Warren does not know if the fire was accidental or intentional, and she does not spend much time thinking about it. The Miami-Dade Fire Department, which battled and investigated the blaze, did not return recent Florida Conference Connection phone calls. 

After the fire, the church quickly began operating out of temporary structures such as tents and eventually portables. Warren reflected recently on the months spent worshipping, meeting, and eating – continuing the work of the church with laughter, not bitterness.

“When it was hot, we had popsicles in church. And when it was cold, we drank hot chocolate,” Warren recalled. “We wanted to show our community that we are here and we weren’t leaving.”

The church is important to the community. Its after-school program welcomes 150 children each day. More than 70 percent of the congregation is under age 18. Its membership includes predominately Haitian, Hispanic and other minorities.

The congregation plans to rebuild with a proposed 11,000-square-foot facility, and fundraising has started. Also, the church is receiving an insurance settlement of about $600,000, according to Mark Thomas, Conference Director of Ministry Protection. A portion of that money covers property loss and interim operations.

South Florida Urban Ministries (SFLUM), which operates the after-school program, is leading the rebuilding effort. About 70 percent of the funds needed to build a new $2 million structure has been raised, said Isabelle Pike, SFLUM director of development.

Churches that have helped Branches with physical and financial needs include First United Methodist Church in Homestead, First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Windermere.   Also, an anonymous Christian Family Foundation benefactor will give $1.50 for every $1 raised toward the capital campaign, Pike said.

The team is all here at Branches after school program.

“There was such an outpouring of compassion after the fire,” Pike said. “Our dream is that all of our churches will devote one weekend offering toward helping Branches rebuild. That, along with the $1.50 match, will get the church built faster. We know that smaller churches may not be able to do that but even $100 or $1,000 goes a long way.”

Vineyard Community Church in Miami surprised the Branches congregation, delivering an $80,000 check.

Missionary Kim King Torres said the generosity has made many hard days since the fire more bearable. Torres, a Church and Community Worker with General Board of Global Ministries, has directed the Branches program since 1994.

“We have a great group of older adults and we continue to serve,” Torres said. “I think that’s the important thing about the fire; people pulled together because they care about Branches. There are a lot of different groups of people here with gifts to offer. People show their best when they are in a disaster and that’s how we survived.”

Torres gives credit to church volunteers who helped when needed.  “There was no time for mourning,” Torres said. “We were just busy trying to figure it out. People made it all happen – all different kinds of people together.”

Warren believes the church’s mission will continue.  “We will continue to proclaim God’s word,” Warren said. “Hope doesn’t disappear.”

2010 South Florida Urban Ministries (SFLUM) Branching Out Video

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