Church Celebrates Rebirth From Ashes : Thousand Oaks: Tested by a devastating fire, the congregation of Redeemer Lutheran has a new sanctuary and renewed faith.


The crisp fragrance of pine boughs may overpower the lingering smell of fresh paint during today’s Christmas celebration at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Thousand Oaks.

But to the Rev. Elroi Reimnitz, the gleaming whitewashed walls are just as important as the pungent holly-flecked wreaths. For both symbols remind him of miraculous births.

Today’s service marks the first time in three years that Reimnitz has been able to usher Christmas in to his own “spiritual home”--the familiar, friendly sanctuary at Redeemer Lutheran.


The church, on the corner of Camino Dos Rios and Lynn Road, was burned to a skeletal rubble in a mysterious blaze just a week before Christmas in 1992. The devastating fire scorched the Christmas tree, gutted the sanctuary and buried the altar under a swirl of soot.

This Christmas, however, Redeemer Lutheran Church is whole again--thanks to a $1.1-million overhaul completed in early October.

The church’s 140 members are overjoyed.

“We’ll have a chance to experience the true meaning of rebirth at Christmastime,” said Bruce McDougall, the congregation president. “It’s going to be wonderful.”

Resurrecting Redeemer Lutheran required two years of hard work. Starting just a few weeks after the fire, congregation members began to examine blueprints, interview contractors, haggle with insurance agents and review construction codes.

Throughout the reconstruction, the congregation met in a spare, cramped Sunday school classroom a few yards from the sooty sanctuary.

“People didn’t get discouraged, impatient or upset,” Reimnitz said, marveling at his flock’s faith. “They were very supportive. They realized that a church is not the building, it’s the people. And they stayed with it.”


They even learned to joke about it.

Redeemer Lutheran’s recruitment brochure, designed to woo new members to the congregation, features a sepia-tone photo of the church as it looked just after the fire--the altar reduced to rubble, the pews scorched, and every religious icon either singed or cracked beyond repair.

The wry caption read: “Are you burned-out, too?”

Spinning a bane into a blessing, the brochure explains that worshipers at Redeemer Lutheran have learned new empathy since the flames destroyed their church. Welcoming potential worshipers who might feel lonely, depressed or adrift, the brochure states consolingly, “We know how it feels to lose something that is very dear to us.”

However dear, the original Redeemer Lutheran Church was definitely outdated when the fire swept through it. Built in 1964, the church was full of what Reimnitz calls “the ‘60s look,” from the bulky yellow lanterns on the walls to the faded maroon carpet on the floor. The building was not accessible for worshipers in wheelchairs, either.

The new church is designed to look stylish--and remain serviceable--through the year 2000 and beyond, Reimnitz said.

Redeemer Lutheran’s old wood doors--heavy and forbidding--have been replaced with a more welcoming entrance. Walls have been knocked down and an indoor balcony constructed to infuse the church with a light, airy feeling. Even the deep-colored, stained-glass windows were replaced with more translucent pastel panels that speckle the pews with colorful light.

“It’s much more open, much more worshipful,” Reimnitz said.

For the first time ever, Redeemer Lutheran has a public-address system to provide instructions during emergencies. Hearing-impaired worshipers can listen to the services on individual headsets at their pews. And congregation members in wheelchairs can maneuver easily through the parking lot, sanctuary and bathrooms.


The church also meets the latest seismic safety standards, and sprinklers have been installed in every building.

“Finally we can get on with doing what we’re meant to do, which is praise the Lord and reach out to the community,” congregation member Norm Nagel said.

But, for all their jubilation, congregation members still cannot put the fire entirely behind them.

Redeemer Lutheran’s insurance policy covered only $800,000 in damages, so the church now faces a $300,000 debt, Reimnitz said. He said the congregation plans to take out a 20-year loan from the Lutheran Church Extension Fund to cover the repair costs.

Repaying the loan will require a serious fund-raising effort. And Reimnitz anticipates that the new sanctuary will cost more to heat, light and insure than the old church. In all, he anticipates spending $177,000 to keep Redeemer Lutheran running next year--a 36% increase over this year’s budget.

Since the church relies entirely on donations, Reimnitz said, “the congregation is being challenged” to come up with enough cash to meet the bills.


Ironically, the fire seems to have given some worshipers the confidence to tackle that challenge.

“The fire has given us a stronger reliance on each other,” McDougall said. “It’s made us a family in the true sense.”