A series of fires damaged significant portions of the Denton, Texas, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (DUUF) in the morning hours of Wednesday, December 16. A local 15-year-old boy is suspected of setting the fires between 7:30 and 9:30 a.m. The fires were neither an intentional targeting of the church nor of Unitarian Universalist values more broadly, according to the Rev. Pam Wat, but were “the actions of a troubled kid.” Police took the boy into juvenile custody later in the day.
“I am grateful that this was not a personal attack, but instead seems to be the result of our church just happening to be there,” Wat said in a message to the congregation Wednesday night. Though several items were also stolen from the church, including multiple laptops, most have since been returned.
Wat said the fires most severely damaged the Fellowship Hall and the religious education wing. She hopes the sanctuary will be functional in time for the fellowship’s 4:30 and 6 p.m. Christmas Eve services.
The Denton fellowship, located less than two blocks from Denton High School, is holding Sunday services at nearby First Christian Church while the building is repaired. Denton is a city of 115,000, 40 miles northwest of Dallas and 35 miles northeast of Fort Worth. Wat said Friday they are likely to hold 1 p.m. Sunday services at First Christian through February. “The local churches here have been incredibly supportive in helping us get the word out about the fires and the changes to our services,” Wat said.
Wat said many of the congregation’s members believe that being compassionate toward the boy who perpetrated the fire is important. “Once you start seeing someone’s story—we all make bad choices," she said Friday. "I had a lot of privilege he didn’t have, and I feel compassion towards him.”
DUUF is still gathering information about the extent of the damage done and what the financial toll will be after insurance. The nursery is a “total loss” due to smoke damage, while the office was left untouched. All of the hymnals will need to be replaced, and some furniture was lost. Many windows were damaged, though they have since replaced several. Murals on the church walls will be lost. Religious education supplies will also have to be replaced.
Room Five, known at DUUF as the “teen room,” experienced perhaps the most severe damage. Two signs, though damaged by fire and water, remained, carrying the sentiment the fellowship is using as inspiration through a challenging time: “We extinguish this flame, but not the light of truth, the warmth of community or the fire of commitment. These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.”
The fellowship has set up a recovery fund through PayPal, accessible from its website. Wat and the fellowship’s board are asking that people not send hymnals or other supplies at this time, for a lack of space in housing them.