Fire destroys UU community center in destitute part of Tulsa

Fire destroys UU community center in destitute part of Tulsa

Unitarian Universalist ministers say their community ministry—which provides food and community space—will not slow down.

Elaine McArdle
The state Fire Marshal’s Office is investigating the cause of a blaze that destroyed much of the Welcome Table Community Center in Turley early Thursday.

A fire destroyed much of the Welcome Table Community Center in Turley, Oklahoma, early Thursday, March 2. (© 2017 Harrison Grimwood/Tulsa World)

© 2017 Harrison Grimwood/Tulsa World


This story has been updated (3.8.17).

Even though a March 2 fire destroyed most of an old church that housed the Welcome Table Community Center—a food bank and gathering place that serves hundreds of people in a particularly destitute suburb of Tulsa, Oklahoma—the Rev. Ron Robinson said the center’s work will not slow down.

“Even today, we had a community partners meeting and talked about the needs of our neighbors, as well as the fire,” Robinson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, told UU World hours after the fire. The Welcome Center is in Turley, an unincorporated area near North Tulsa, where many people don’t have electricity in their homes, and the average life expectancy is 11 years fewer than in the city. Despite being up all night, Robinson was headed out Thursday afternoon to get food donations for people “who are in need,” he said.

No one was injured in the fire, which began in the early morning of Thursday, March 2, and the cause is as yet unknown, said Terry Ferrel, operations chief for the Office of the State Fire Marshal. The Turley and Tulsa fire departments fought the blaze but the condition of the historic building—built in the early twentieth century—was grim. The sanctuary roof collapsed and much of the rest of the structure, which held a number of beautiful stained glass windows, was destroyed, Ferrel told UU World. “From what I could see, it’s going to be a total loss.”

All of the Welcome Table’s records were destroyed, as were freezers and thousands of pounds of food stored in the church. However, a small part of the structure remained intact, and food stored there was not burned. “We’re really grateful for that,” said the Rev. Debra Garfinkel, a UU minister affiliated both with the Welcome Table and the Church of the Restoration UU in Tulsa.

From the archives

UU World profiled the Rev. Ron Robinson in 2010 as his A Third Place community ministry purchased the abandoned church that has housed the Welcome Table community center ever since.

Cultivating an abandoned place

© Douglas Henderson

The Welcome Table, through its umbrella organization, A Third Place Community Foundation, serves a multiracial community of about 1,000 people a month, or about one in ten people in its service area, Robinson told UU World last November. The Welcome Table is affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association as a “covenanting community,” a new category of UU values-driven groups that do not look like conventional congregations.

The disaster will not dent the work of the Welcome Table, said Robinson, who has been operating the community center in the church since 2011. The church, which had been abandoned before his organization reclaimed it, has personal meaning for Robinson: he was baptized there and his parents were married there.

“Everything is going to keep happening. That’s the good news,” Garfinkel said. “The ministry continues, and there’s even more reason to keep continuing it. So we’re not giving up, we’re not sitting around crying about it, although we are doing some crying.”

“The best thing to do right now is send prayers, and monthly small donations to help us build our foundation,” said Robinson.

gofundme campaign for the Welcome Table had raised almost $3,000 toward a goal of $25,000 by Friday morning.

Four times a year, the Welcome Table gives out about six tons of food from a local food bank in a single hour at the Methodist church across from the Welcome Table’s Garden Park. (That church has a parking lot, which makes food distribution easier, Garfinkel said.) The quarterly event was scheduled for March 3, the day after the fire, and would continue to take place, Robinson said.

On March 4, the Welcome Table will host its weekly Saturday breakfast, possibly even at the church in a part of the building that was not burned, Robinson said. The Corner Store Free Pantry, which offers free food each Saturday and Wednesday, will also continue uninterrupted, he said, with the new location yet to be determined. Garfinkel said it may become an outdoor farmers’ market and take place at the Garden Park, Welcome Table’s vegetable garden and parklike gathering space.

On Sunday, March 5, the Welcome Table will meet for its regularly scheduled church dinner, probably at the Garden Park, Robinson said.

“As Ron says, we’d like to think that the ministry we do—which is more than the food, it’s also art and community and celebrations and building relationships—is all contributing,” Garfinkel said.

Robinson and his wife, Dr. Bonnie Ashing, a physician, grew up in Turley and live and work there. Robinson, Garfinkel, and the other Welcome Table staff are volunteers, and the center works with a number of community partners, including the sheriff’s department, the volunteer fire department, and others, Garfinkel said. “Everybody involved is part of the community. This is not about us doing for them, it’s us being in this together,” she said.


Update 3.8.17: A state investigation has determined that the cause of the fire was an electrical malfunction near the attic that was accidental in nature, Terry Ferrel, operations chief for the Office of the State Fire Marshal, told UU World on March 7.