SAN JOSE -- Amid tears and heartfelt hugs, the congregation of San Jose First Methodist Church on Sunday honored two members who helped rebuild the historic downtown institution after a devastating fire more than two decades ago.

Over the years, as it struggled to finance and gain approval for a new place of worship, San Jose First -- as its congregation calls it -- ran into numerous hurdles, including a six-year tussle over its insurance claim and years of resistance from city bureaucrats.

But this fall, the church was finally was able to reopen its doors at the corner of Fifth and Santa Clara streets, where it had been located since 1910. The resurrection was largely the result of efforts by its former pastor -- the Rev. Jim Crawford -- and operations director Cindy Manley.

"We would absolutely not be standing here without them," board member Jeff Huget told about 100 people who gathered in the new church, located across the street from San Jose City Hall. Then he added, to cheers and applause, "We are here to stay."

Weathering battles

Founded in 1847, the religious institution has endured a series of difficulties that would have tested the patience of Job.

In 1889, after San Jose First admitted Chinese children into its Sunday school, an anti-immigrant mob burned the place down. The congregation rebuilt, but that structure was largely destroyed by the great earthquake of 1906. Then, after it was rebuilt again, an electrical mishap in March of 1991 sparked a horrific fire that reduced the structure to ashes.

The congregation, mostly of Asian and Latino descent, continued to meet in temporary facilities as it weathered the insurance battle and finally gained the city's approval to build the bright, rectangular, two-story edifice at 24 N. Fifth St., which resembles a modern corporate office more than a traditional church But during that time, Crawford's wife, Susan, died of cancer, and he suffered a crippling disease that forced him to retire last year.

Hobbling on a cane and accompanied by his family, he was on hand for Sunday's event, where he received hugs from members of the congregation and spoke tearfully of the ordeal they all had been through.

"Today is a day that we prayed for and dreamed about and worked hard for for over 20 years," he said with his voice breaking. "I'm just so full of emotion."

A 'promised space'

His perseverance was praised by San Jose First's associate pastor, Jonathan Tarman, who told the crowd, "Pastor Jim has never lost faith that God would do great things through us."

Manley, a lawyer, was described by the church's pastor, Shinya Goto, as a person who worked tirelessly on the innumerable details that arose during the building's construction as well as on many other church activities.

"She gives and gives and gives, and then she gives some more," Goto said. "The bible talks about going the extra mile," he added, "and that's Cindy."

In response, Manley -- who along with her husband, Mike, also have contributed more than $1 million to Notre Dame High School in San Jose, according to Principal Mary Beth Riley -- thanked the congregation for not giving up on the quest to rebuild the church.

"Hurray," she told them all. "We're out of the wilderness and into the promised space."

Contact Steve Johnson at sjohnson@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5043. Follow him at Twitter.com/steveatmercnews.