Forest Lake church group displaced during convention
Fourteen students from the youth group of Forest Lake’s Immanuel Church went to Rochester Oct. 17 expecting to hear from inspirational speakers at the Minnesota Youth Convention.
They were not expecting to bring back such an exciting story of their own.
The youth, along with six adult counselors, were displaced when fire struck the Rochester house belonging to the parents-in-law of Immanuel youth pastor Matt Ragain.
Though each member of the local group lost possessions to smoke damage, no physical toll was taken, as the blaze started while the church group was attending the convention at the Rochester Civic Center.
Church leaders have been quick to preach the message that their fortunes could have been much worse. Had the fire been spotted only minutes later, the entire house may have burned. Had the fire occurred a few hours later, the group would have been sleeping inside, including six girls in the basement where the fire ignited.
“It was supposed to just be a fun weekend of worship and learning and prayer time, to build up unity within the group itself,” Ragain said last week. “Unity definitely happened, but not really in the context we were expecting.”
The convention, put on by Minnesota Student Ministries, annually draws thousands of young Christians to Rochester. This year marked the first trip to the two-day event for the youth group from the local Baptist church.
The Thursday night session was in full swing when Ragain received an urgent text message from his wife, Leah, who had left the convention to take their two young children to the home of her parents, who were visiting relatives in Europe. Upon their arrival, flames were spilling out of the basement windows.
The group had swung by the house earlier to drop off luggage, so Ragain’s initial thoughts were of both sorrow and guilt. The pastor awoke his father-in-law at 5 a.m. Switzerland time and got straight to the point.
“I love you. Your house is on fire. I’m not joking,” he said.
The response he received helped put the situation in perspective.
“He immediately said, ‘Matt, it’s a house. We’ll figure it out. It’s a house. It’s OK,’” Ragain said.
Firefighters were able to limit the structure’s physical damage, but the group’s possessions were off limits.
With everyone accounted for – including the Ragains’ dog, thanks to the fire department – the attention of the group’s leaders turned to matters of practicality: Should we stay? If so, where? What about toiletries and other lost belongings?
From this point on, Ragain said, the group could see God’s hand at work. Calls came in from three groups offering beds for the night. Those offers were respectfully declined because the Red Cross put the group up at a hotel so members would not need to split up. The Red Cross also provided a debit card, which chaperones used to buy supplies like toothbrushes and changes of clothes during a 2 a.m. trip to Walmart.
Putting in perspective
With the benefit of hindsight, the congregation now views the situation as a teaching tool. Ragain said the youth group regularly talks about putting struggles into context by considering the plight of those in less fortunate situations around the globe. He felt the incident, while distressing for the youth and devastating for the homeowners, served as a reminder of how blessed most Americans are.
The kids learned that when trouble comes, life goes on.
“We weren’t destitute, that’s the crazy thing,” Ragain said. “Yeah, we didn’t have any of our stuff, but that’s OK. Even if we didn’t have fresh undies, so what? There are worse things in the world, and it was cool to be able to talk about that with our students.”
The adventure-filled trip was brought up at church that Sunday, students talked about it at youth group the following Wednesday, and Ragain figured he would address it further in his sermon this past Sunday.
“As a pastor, I’m still kind of thinking, ‘What can we learn? What’s God showing us as a youth group, as a church?’” Ragain said. “I definitely think God works all things for the good of those who love him, and I think good can come out of this tragedy.”
In the wake of the fire, a turning point came where the group’s leaders had to decide whether to stay or cut their losses. They chose to remain for the rest of the convention, and the choice was unanimous, Ragain said.
“We felt like we were supposed to be there for a purpose, we were supposed to be there for a reason, and I think just leaving would’ve been the worst thing to do,” he said.
As far as next year’s event, count Immanuel Church in.
“We’ll definitely go back,” Ragain said. “We loved it. It was a great experience.”