Pastor Edward Jenkins startled awake.
“Edward, get up!” said Kimberley. “Get up. The church is on fire.”
Jenkins struggled to understand. He looked at the clock — 2:30 a.m. — hours before he’d be delivering his Sunday sermon.
“The church is on fire,” his wife repeated. “We have to go.”
Jenkins reached for his glasses. He read the texts on his phone. There was no time for thinking, for considering what would be lost if their church burned down.
Founded in 1943 and named for the nation’s hope in a time of war, Victory Baptist Church was the spiritual home for four generations of Black Angelenos, many of whom arrived in Los Angeles during the Second Great Migration from the segregated South.
It was here where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered calls for equality and justice, where Mahalia Jackson sang of the world’s troubles, where Billy Preston learned the language of the organ.
It was here where mayors, City Council members and community activists counseled, advised, cajoled and roused members to action.
It was here where any talk of loss would be too great to contemplate.
The night — Sept. 11, 2022 — was warm and clear. The couple drove west from their home in La Habra, a route they had followed for 27 years.
As the downtown skyline came into view, they took Central Avenue south, turned right at 48th Street and stopped. Fire engines and police cars blocked the way; emergency strobes painted the neighborhood red, then white.
Jenkins and Kimberley parked and walked. They breathed the acrid air, stepped over fire hoses snaking across the road where pools of water had collected. Whatever hope they had held onto disappeared.
Soon joined by their son, Jahi, Jenkins watched as the flames leaped above the roof, lighting the tower and white cross, turning gray smoke orange. Ladder trucks trained broad streams of water into the hollowing shell.
By dawn, members of the church showed up, and Jenkins, 70, knew he needed to be a voice of hope and reason. If he had any doubts, he hid them. A fire like this could be the end of a church whose congregation was already in decline.
“We shall rise from the ashes,” he said. “We shall return.”
But he saw in their eyes confusion and disbelief. How could this have happened? they asked.
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