SAN JOSE -- Jim Crawford's back was killing him Monday morning, but the cross he has carried for 22 years would soon lift. Or so he thought.
Painted eternal white, the hefty, steel symbol of Christianity would be the final touch on his long, spiritual mission -- the rebuilding of downtown's San Jose First United Methodist Church, which burned down in a huge, tragic fire in 1991.
As he waited, Crawford remembered the call from First United the day after the fire. Would he leave a comfortable Methodist post in Auburn, a pretty town in the Sierra Nevada foothills, to lead an urban church with an aging, shrinking, white congregation and a habit of burning down every century?
Finally, this week, the tortuous saga ends, the legal and bureaucratic battles have been won. The new church is almost ready to open. But Crawford was lucky to see it this far. During the long ordeal, he lost his wife to cancer, his ability to walk to a crippling disease, and he gave up leadership of First United last year to go on medical retirement.
"I felt like Moses," he says, "at the edge of the Promised Land."
According to the Bible, Moses never made it. But Crawford did. He got his new church. Now he wanted to finally see its cross installed on top.
On Monday, men in hard hats began to bolt the cross to the spire. The former pastor kept his camera focused on them. And then the hard hats suddenly stopped. They signaled to the crane operator, who lifted the cross away and then set it gently down onto a dirt lot.
"What happened?" Crawford asked no one in particular.
Word came down about a rookie mistake: some of the holes drilled in the brackets connecting the cross to the spire did not line up.
"There will be lots of yelling and lots of screaming," he said, "and money changing hands."
But when it comes to this determined, hardworking church, there are always tribulations to deal with and to overcome.
In 1889, a few years after Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in one of its recurring fits of anti-immigrant hysteria, San Jose First United Methodist admitted Chinese kids into its Sunday school. For this act, a mob burned down the whole church.
The stubborn congregation built another one on South Second Street, but it was largely destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. Only a few years later, in 1911, a third First United went up on Fifth and Santa Clara streets.
With a grand dome and stunning stained-glass windows, the Spanish revival church graced a proud downtown even as its members defied the law and stood up for justice. When its Japanese-American members were sent to internment camps during World War II, the church stored their belongings in the basement and tended to their land and homes.
As San Jose grew outward, suburban and rich off the technological revolution, the church stayed downtown and hosted soup kitchens, housing and immigrant services, neighborhood advocacy groups and many more who tended to be the less fortunate.
"This congregation had the opportunity to move to the suburbs many times, but it decided to stay home and serve its community," Crawford said.
On March 25, 1991, the electricity went haywire, setting the whole building on fire.
"It was a spectacular fire," said Cindy Manley, now operations director for First United. "I stood on the corner and watched the whole building go down."
About 400 drop-jawed spectators, including me, looked on as 85 firefighters pumped 9,000 gallons of water per minute onto the blaze. Before the roof collapsed, firefighters managed to rescue two brass candle holders, a crucifix and a Bible. Church members picked up shards of the stained-glass windows and stored them.
The salvaged candelabras and crucifix were later stolen.
Many more battles
Rebuilding would not be as simple as putting up a new church on the same spot.
Dejected, about 30 percent of the congregation left within a year after the fire.
"They didn't want to be in downtown anymore," said Crawford.
Then the church's insurance company rejected their claim, sparking a grueling six-year legal fight that cost the congregation $1.8 million.
"At one point they had 21 lawyers and we had seven," said the former pastor who still has a spark, despite his infirmities. "Holy crap!"
Even after settlement landed in church coffers, it then ran into starry-eyed redevelopment officials bent on turning downtown San Jose into another Manhattan or San Francisco.
"They didn't see a need for a church on this corner," Crawford said. His congregation kept telling the church leadership to 'Hold the corner!'
An unhappy city hall wanted something big, tall and complicated. Eventually, the state abolished redevelopment agencies, freeing First United to finish the rebuild according to its own ideas.
Traditionalists will not be pleased. The new church looks more like a small office building adorned with religious symbols -- art glass windows and the cross. But it has tall windows and glass doors that invite people off the street to come in. Interior rooms are designed for community meetings, social service programs, wedding receptions and even indoor volleyball for the kids.
In another key change, perhaps the biggest, the church will now deliver these services directly as opposed to inviting outside groups to operate them.
"Those were all difficult conversations we had," Manley said. "We wanted to build for the future and not put up a tall church with closed doors. Jim led all of those conversations."
The congregation has changed, too. Latinos and Asians now make up three-quarters of the membership. On Sunday mornings, middle-class college professors sit next to working class and even homeless people.
With construction nearly done, First United Methodist expects to celebrate its first service in mid-December, hopefully with the cross installed. The congregation can take heart that Pastor Emeritus Jim Crawford is still on the job.
"Every ounce of me is still with this church," he said, despite the cross snafu. "I'm patient. It'll go up. It's just a glitch."
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