Last Saturday morning, I phoned my daughter, who earlier this year moved into the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California. There was no answer. I left her a message that I hoped didn't sound too worried: "Just making sure you're okay. Call me back." Then I sent her a text message: "Huge tragic fire in your area?" And another one, two hours later: "Hey Kathleen check with me. Hoping you were not at that fire." No response. The news dribbled out: "At least 3 dead in Oakland artists' collective warehouse fire."
Kathleen and Stan like their condo in Fruitvale, a nice residential area just south of downtown. Their only complaint is that "we wish there were local places to go." Compared with her recent home in Brooklyn, her new place seemed placid. She liked a bit of action, a livelier scene.
"Many anxiously wait for updates on loved ones"
"Anguished waiting as more bodies to be identified"
"Families text their children frantically hoping for replies"
The fire chief's press conference dashed hopes: "No one is in the hospital. The fire spread so fast, people either made it out or they didn't make it out."
No sprinkler system, two small hard-to-find exit doors, rickety stairs, lots of wood and flammable objects.
After two hours of anxious waiting, Kathleen texted back: "We're fine. I overslept." She was not at the "Ghost Ship" warehouse after all, checking out the arts scene in her neighborhood. She was fine. But the families of 36 young people did not get the text that I did: "We're fine." 36 did not make it out of that building.
I thought about the Rectory next door to the church. It is coded as "residential" not to be used for "business" or "assembly" and not set up for church-style meetings and gatherings. But so what? What difference does it make? What's the difference between a family having a big party in their own home/rectory, and a small meeting of adults learning about God?
The cynical answer is: liability. But the real answer is in the Ghost Ship tragedy. The real answer is: the church's responsibility and concern for life. In the Ghost Ship, without safety measures built into the place, there was almost no chance to escape when the fire broke out and spread wildly within minutes. Fire engines were there within three minutes, and it was too late.
In the Rectory, the front door barely opens-I was unable to open it from the inside. The side door is really two thin half-doors. One of the halves takes a minute to open. Both doors open inward. If a fire were to happen, people would have to line up to exit through these doors. The persons at the back of the line would have to back up into the fire, in order to let the persons at the front get the doors open. The windows don't open. There are no sprinkler systems. If 36 persons are in the living room when a fire suddenly ignites in the kitchen, would all be able to text their loved ones "We're fine"?
Maris Bernard is an interior designer and a member of Calvary's Vestry. Last month she wrote a report on the use of the rectory during this interim period. Some people-including me-have pushed for using the building temporarily as a gathering spot until we know whether the next rector will want to live there or not. Why waste the space?
Maris strongly objected. She doesn't "just do painting and furniture." She deals with building codes and safety rules, egress and ingress, fire hazard prevention, accessibility, and the myriad city rules and regulations that make a building appropriately equipped. In her report, Maris pointed out the legal, ethical, and humanitarian (read: preciousness of life) issues in using the rectory improperly.
Some of us thought, we can use it tactfully. Discreetly. Carefully. Nothing bad will happen. That fire-it won't happen to us.
But it happened in the Ghost Ship in Oakland, in my daughter's neighborhood. And I am sure that many of the artists who worked or lived there, though they knew they were taking a risk, also thought "it won't happen to us."
But Maris is right. And thank you to Maris for her careful analysis, and for the integrity and ethical foundation of her recommendation. And so, beginning immediately, the Rectory will be closed to all meetings and gatherings. Those currently meeting there will be invited to use the Burton Room just off Hannaford Hall. That room, now set up as a conference room, is in the process of being re -fashioned with new chairs and tables, into a room appropriate for, and inviting to, gatherings of up to 30 people, with a flexible room arrangement and tech capacity.
In the meantime, we will continue to maintain the Rectory, repairing what is required and making sure that the building is secure. But we ask you to please honor our request not to use the building as a meeting space until the Vestry has made a decision on its use and has then made appropriate changes. It may be that the next rector would prefer to live in a small, modern condo downtown. And then the decision will be made as to whether to turn the building into a place of assembly, legally. Or the next rector may see the home and say, "This will be perfect for me and my family! It will become my home!"
But we can never let it become a Ghost Ship. Because if we're not mindful-yes, it can happen to us.
Please keep the families and friends of the 36 tragically-lost young, creative, free-spirited fire victims of the Oakland fire in your prayers.