By: Yvette Ramirez
It was early morning on Friday May 27, 2022. I consider myself to be a heavy sleeper. The only thing that wakes me up from my slumber is being shaken. I woke up to someone shaking me. “La iglesia se esta quemando—the church is burning down, and Jessica has been calling you!” my mom said. My phone had been on Do not disturb. There were numerous missed calls. It had to be a dream or at least it was what I was telling myself. The church I attend, the Pentecostals of the Bay Area, my place of refuge, was under flames.
I put on whatever I could find, a sweatshirt dress and leggings, since mornings are usually cold in Pittsburg. I was on a mission to get to the church. I hopped in my car and sped through traffic because I knew that it was going to take me 20 minutes to get to the church. As I drove closer, I felt more anxious as streams of tears rolled down my face. My thoughts were foggy. Down the street from the church sanctuary, you could see the smoke form into dark clouds. It was a little past 5:30 a.m., the sun was rising but the skies around the church were covered in dark gray smoke. The Pittsburg Fire Department had closed Central Avenue, one of the cross streets. Creating a detour that felt like this drive was taking an eternity. I finally arrived to see an image that will forever be imprinted in my mind: flames engulfing what was once the roof of the church. I ran to my cousin Jessica and hugged her.
I was on a mission to get to the church.
The alarm was triggered a little after 2 a.m and the first fire was reported at 2:45 a.m. The church secretary, Ambar Puentes, was called by the alarm company. She lived close by and was the first one at the scene. Puentes then called Elias Limones, pastor of the church. As time went by, the message trickled down from the pastor and church staff to the members of the congregation. When I arrived, there were many church members gathered. “It started somewhere on the roof and began to spread to the rest of the building,” Puentes said as she recounted the story to me for this reportage. Puentes at her arrival had hoped that the fire would be contained by the firefighters at the scene. But to her dismay, the fire was spreading, and it was spreading fast. The roof was the first thing that collapsed. The fire raged throughout the side of the building that faced one of the main streets of Pittsburg, Railroad Avenue. I found myself amongst many of the brothers and sisters from the church watching helplessly and heartbroken.
Before it was a place of worship, the building was the Vogue Theatre of Pittsburg. The theater was built 1948, according to cinematreasures.org. It was converted to a church after it was purchased in 1997. As Limones was speaking to me he said the following, “It was sold to us in 1997 and we transformed it and 25 years later we lost it.” Limones said as he was remembering all his thoughts from that day. The building stood tall for 74 years. Its three floors and bright sign, The Pentecostals of The Bay Area can be seen from a distance.
I found myself amongst many of the brothers and sisters from the church watching helplessly and heartbroken.
As I stood in front of the building, pain and sadness took over my heart. My mind became flooded with memories. Every part of the church building was a keepsake box containing vivid mementos of my childhood, teenage years and now adulthood. A clear picture of my friends running around holding their Bibles through the hallways of the third floor that had the Sunday school classrooms. The memories of the hermanas or sisters from the church that would sell food in the cafeteria. I was remembering the aroma of pupusas that would come from the kitchen after Sunday morning services.
The church did not only feed the members of the congregation but in time would also become one of the major food banks for Pittsburg and the surrounding cities. A partnership was formed between the Pentecostals of the Bay Area and the City of Pittsburg to distribute food to the hungry and to provide special meals during the holidays.
Outreach has always been the goal of the Pentecostals of the Bay Area ever since I can remember. It connected the community. It was evident on the day of the fire, as people would park their vehicles to stand in solidarity with the church members. There were comfort-full verbal exchanges between members of the church and those who had stopped to watch. “We are with you all.” a man said to one of the church members. We all witnessed the flames and the fumes. Both sides of the building experienced the scorching fire. When the flames were put out, all that was left were ashes and fragments of giant standing concrete. Visual remnants of what was once a fortress of faith.
I was remembering the aroma of pupusas that would come from the kitchen after Sunday morning services.
The crowd grew. Questions about the cause of the fire also grew. Although the firefighters were working to contain the fire, there was no clear cause. This was concerning because another church had also experienced a fire eight months prior. Nothing was suspicious but more investigation would be needed by the fire department and insurance company. Although the loss was physical, it remains an emotional void, shared by the pastor and church members of the Pentecostals of the Bay Area. “It was something deep and personal. All we can do is look ahead and rebuild,” Limones said.