At burned West Philly church: ‘All I want for Christmas is a roof on God’s house’

Bishop Benjamin Peterson Jr. (left) leads Sunday morning services outside of the damaged Greater Bible Way Temple on Sept. 1, 2019. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Bishop Benjamin Peterson Jr. (left) leads Sunday morning services outside of the damaged Greater Bible Way Temple on Sept. 1, 2019. (Rachel Wisniewski for WHYY)

Under bright sunshine on a West Philadelphia street named Bible Way, they sang through sorrow and prayed for a resurrection. 

Days after a three-alarm fire ripped through Greater Bible Way Temple, dozens gathered for an al fresco Sunday service in the church’s charred shadow — some coming from as far away as Minnesota.

Pastor Benjamin Peterson stood at the center of it all, belting out affirmations to energize his congregation and, seemingly, the entire city. 

“The fire is taking us higher. The fire is taking us higher,” screeched Peterson, the smell of burnt wood wafting between rows of blue-cushioned seats.

Tyrone Waters traveled across town to sit in one of them. He doesn’t go to church every Sunday, but he refused to miss this weekend’s outdoor service. 

After flames chewed through the church’s roof and sanctuary, the place where he was baptized, he wanted to beat back the devastation with his congregation, his family. 

“We gonna get over this. The church is going to come back stronger and better than it was,” Waters said. 

Peterson estimates it’ll take $6 million to restore Greater Bible Way, a 115 year-old church near 52nd Street and Lancaster Avenue. It was built as a Catholic church, but this congregation has been worshiping there for decades. Insurance and previous fundraising will cover about half of the damage. The congregation has already begun a GoFundMe campaign online to raise the rest.

During Sunday’s service, he said that money would be used to shore up the hulking stone building, but also for small upgrades, including larger flat-screen televisions in the sanctuary, more outlets for people to charge their cell phones, and additional cordless microphones. 

Peterson hopes his church will be rebuilt by spring. 

“All I want for Christmas is a roof on God’s house,” Peterson said. “All I want for my birthday is for the interior to be finished.” 

For the next several months, services will be held inside a climate-controlled tent a few steps away from the church.  

Junius Coles, whose daughter is married to Peterson’s son,  said the construction can wait — the congregation will prosper with or without it. 

“The building doesn’t represent your faith. Your faith is in God, so the building has nothing to do with what you believe in,” he said. 

That kind of optimism hung over Bible Way for more than two hours on Sunday and persisted afterward, as congregants made their way home. 

Halfway through the service, everyone got a rubber wristband printed with a message in bold black letters: “Things just got better.”  

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