Congregation vows to rebuild fire-consumed Malibu church

Rachel Whittemore, 17, looks at a child's drawing left in the ruins of the Malibu Presbyterian Church nursery school. Rachel, who attended the preschool as a child, said she cried when she saw it burn down on television. Her mother said bringing Rachel to the ruins was important for her daughter to find "closure."
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Before the flames descended early Sunday morning, the Rev. Greg Hughes and a few members of his flock had a bare 40 minutes to retrieve a couple of computers, some key files and guitars from Malibu Presbyterian Church. The rest they had to leave in God’s hands.

By the time Hughes returned to his home in west Malibu, the church on Malibu Canyon Road, near Pepperdine University, was fully ablaze. His children wept as TV images showed fire consuming the place where they had been baptized and attended preschool.

Hughes thought of the 20 years of accumulated books, his diploma from Princeton Theological Seminary and the visitation communion set his pastor father had left him. Within minutes, those and other mementos would be gone.


But something more important would remain.

“The strongest part of our community is the people, not the building,” Hughes said as he and colleagues sifted through ashes and charred file cabinets earlier this week, turning up an intact communion cup here and a melted laptop screen there.

“Ours is an Easter faith,” Hughes said. “Jesus looked dead on Friday but by Sunday he was resurrected. We pray that we’ll rise again and be better for it.”

Church members have vowed to rebuild as soon as possible and use the disaster as an opportunity to enlarge the church’s ministry.

“The strength of any church is the sense of mutual support and common mission,” said S. Scott Bartchy, director of UCLA’s Center for the Study of Religion.

“If anything, when the building is lost for any reason, that sense of mutuality and common purpose is not at all weakened. Rather . . . adversity tends to strengthen those values,” he said.

Hughes has vowed not only to rebuild but also to honor his commitment, given the night before the fire, to pledge $500,000 to a teen center planned for inner-city L.A. by World Impact Los Angeles, a Christian missions organization.


“We’re knocked down,” Hughes said, “but we’re not knocked out.”

Casual and contemporary, the affluent church has about 400 members and visitors who attend two Sunday services. In addition, it attracts hundreds of Pepperdine students for Tuesday evening worship. It is not unusual to have congregants attend in flip-flops and shorts. Guitars and drums augment a piano and organ.

On Monday, about 15 church members sat around a large table at Spruzzo’s Pizzeria & Cafe on Pacific Coast Highway. They shared stories and updated one another on developments. Other churches and synagogues had already reached out, offering support and facilities for holding services and preschool classes.

Kevin Iga, who serves on the church’s 15-member elder board, said he was putting his faith in God’s providence.

“Every building that anybody puts up at some time will be brought down,” said Iga, who teaches mathematics at Pepperdine.

He and other church leaders counted their blessings that no one was hurt in the inferno, which destroyed the main building on the two-acre hillside campus with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean.

Funds for the rebuilding will come from insurance and the congregation, Iga said.

But even as church leaders put forth a brave front, congregants expressed a sense of loss.

“Losing the building is stunning,” said Annie Kauffman, who on Tuesday picked through the rubble near where a preschool room had stood. “To stand and look at all this is a kick in the gut. But because the heart of the church is the people, I don’t feel the sense of devastation.”


Lois Bankins, church life coordinator and a 27-year member of Malibu Presbyterian, said she bemoaned the loss of physical artifacts: photos of pastors, the carved wooden cross that hung from the sanctuary ceiling.

The church had been planning a renovation, she said, but now would have to start again from scratch, just as it did in 1949 when the first congregants held services in the Malibu courthouse.

“I’m very sad this happened,” she said, “but it’s just going to be great.”

Today, the church plans to hold a special ecumenical service, open to the public, at 7 p.m. at Our Lady of Malibu Catholic Church, 3625 Winter Canyon Road.

On Sunday, the congregation plans to gather for a 10 a.m. service at the Malibu Performing Arts Center, 23825 Stuart Ranch Road. Anyone wishing to attend can confirm the times at