“Arson at Yule” sounds like the title of a crime thriller written by a Pagan who shouldn’t quit his day job. I wish it was. Instead, it’s the real experience of Denton CUUPS and the Denton UU Fellowship.
The Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is located two blocks from a high school and three blocks from a major thoroughfare. In the 13 years I’ve been there, vandalism has been a recurring problem. Almost all of it has been minor: trash (and sometimes, drug paraphernalia) left on the playground, a few broken windows, and a couple of break-ins that didn’t cause much damage.
In the Spring of 2014 someone broke into the storage shed where CUUPS keeps some of our ritual furniture. They stole the folding tables we use for quarter altars, as well as the cabinet we used to house our statues of the Gods in our Egyptian Summer Solstice rituals. The folding tables were easy to replace, but the cabinet (which we had used for eight years) was not. One of our members custom-made a new one and another painted it. It’s a nice upgrade, but an upgrade we would have preferred to make voluntarily and not from necessity.
For the past couple of months, the vandalism has been increasing in frequency and severity. Church staff made repairs and filed police reports. On Tuesday evening, two church members went to set up security cameras and found the vandal already inside the building. He ran, but left his cell phone, which was turned over to the police.
On Wednesday morning, our minister Rev. Pam Wat and her husband came over to check on the church and discovered the fire. Four separate fires had been set in four separate parts of the building. The fire department put it out, but there is significant smoke and water damage, particularly in some of the Religious Education classrooms. No one was injured.
The suspect was arrested and is in juvenile detention (this later article from the local paper says a “person of interest” is “in custody on unrelated charges” – I imagine that’s legalese for “we haven’t figured out exactly what we’re going to charge him with yet”). This was not his first incident and we are not his only victims. He appears to be a deeply disturbed young person. He has already gone from breaking windows to setting fires – this is a pattern that frequently leads to hurting animals and then people. Our hope and prayer is that he can be helped before he goes any further down this path… and that until then, he can be compassionately restrained.
Our congregation has taken strong stands on LGBT rights and other social justice issues, and it’s the home of the most public Pagan group in town. But there is NO indication this was a hate crime. Rather, it’s ordinary vandalism carried to extremes.
We hope to get back into the sanctuary for Christmas Eve, but the Fellowship Hall / Religious Education wing will require extensive repairs and will likely not be usable until March. Until then, Sunday services will be held in the afternoons at the Christian (Disciples of Christ) church across the street. They have always been good neighbors and we are thankful for their hospitality.
As soon as the extent of the damage became apparent, it was clear CUUPS could not hold our Yule Circle on Saturday night as planned. While we had several generous offers to host us, we looked at the options and realized we didn’t have any that would work for us. So we made the reluctant decision to cancel our public circle and to hold a private gathering at the home of two of our members. I explained our situation in a post on our Facebook page that was picked up by Nature’s Path, the CUUPS blog here on Patheos.
From the beginning, we had well-meaning friends encouraging us to hold the Yule circle anyway. When that got to be too much I posted this comment on the Nature’s Path article:
Folks, before you insist that we must or should hold the circle anyway, no matter what, please re-read the post carefully and expansively. There are many reasons we made the decision we did, some of which are not appropriate to list in a public forum. Also understand that this was an act of ordinary vandalism by an unbalanced teenager, not a hate crime or the product of organized oppression.
We appreciate the zeal with which these comments are made, but please trust that the leaders who made this decision are experienced, dedicated, and positively hate canceling events. They also have knowledge you do not. We made the best decision we could under the circumstances.
Please do not add to our sorrow and stress at this difficult time by insisting we are “letting them win.”
Our next circle will be Imbolc on January 30. We are planning to hold it entirely in the sanctuary, since that’s the only portion of the building expected to be ready by then.
The damage from the fire is beyond the capabilities of volunteers to clean and repair. Restoration professionals have been called in – they’ll do it better and faster. Damages were estimated at $20,000, though our minister (who, along with our Board of Trustees, has already been talking with contractors) thinks the final costs will be much higher.
The church has insurance, but the deductible is high and the 2016 budget is already extremely tight. A fundraising campaign to cover repairs and renovations has been started.
If you’re interested in helping, there is a PayPal “donate” button on the Denton UU website. Checks can be mailed to Denton UU at 1111 Cordell Street, Denton, TX 76201. Any amount will help and will be received gratefully.
We had a nice Norse themed Yule ritual prepared that told the story of Baldur and the Mistletoe. We put it on the shelf and we’ll break it out for Yule 2016.
Instead, eleven of us gathered at the home of two of our members on Saturday night. We had a potluck dinner that probably had enough food for a well-attended public circle. We started by talking about how we felt about the situation. We’re thankful it wasn’t a hate crime, but at least a hate crime would have given us a target for our anger. In the end, we agreed this is a good example of the fact that not everything “happens for a reason” – or rather, sometimes the reason is just that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our sacred space has been desecrated – we decided to do some cleansing and protecting work right away. Then when the repairs are finished (probably in early March), we’re going to hold a public ritual and invite representatives from area Pagan groups to help us reconsecrate our sacred space. We’re going to make room for our long distance friends to participate too – we want as much “juice” going into this ritual as we can get.
Our matriarch led us in a guided meditation for healing, after which we performed a group ritual to mark the close of the solar year and to banish the harm this year has brought. Offerings were poured to the land spirits, the ancestors, and to the many Gods and Goddesses our members honor and follow.
Denton CUUPS has always been a strong, balanced Pagan group, but the deep work we’ve done this year has especially prepared us to deal with this adversity. We missed doing a Yule circle for the public, but we marked the Solstice and we laid the groundwork for a strong recovery. We will return to providing public rituals at Imbolc on January 30, 2016.