Church vandalized, members clean and pray for intruder
August 18, 2023
The pastor at Good Hope Church returned from sabbatical last weekend to find it pouring ... inside the Cloquet church at 55 Armory Road. Someone had broken into the church, plugged drains and turned on the faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms, then brought a garden hose inside, turned it on "full blast" and left it running for what amounted to 10 hours.
That's what lead pastor Mike Stevens walked into Saturday morning. Stevens initially thought the sprinklers were going off because there was so much water coming through the ceiling.
"There was so much water it came up through the drains and overwhelmed our lift station," he said. "The lower level definitely had a lot of water in it."
The intruder had pulled the fire alarm, which was still going off the next morning, but he had also disconnected the internet, so the alarm never connected to the fire station.
Water soaked through the main floor above, filled the elevator shaft, damaged walls and ceiling tiles, lights and electrical outlets, plumbing, and all the carpeted floors in the downstairs children's area.
Security footage soon revealed it was just one adult male who did the damage, which also included breaking into the shed outside, breaking into a church van, along with throwing things around inside the church.
The videotape also revealed the man appeared to be suffering from apparent mental health issues, exhibiting unusual behavior. Stevens said he recognized the person - who had come to the church more than once before - and is rooting for him to get better.
The lead pastor stressed that he and the members of Good Hope are not angry, just concerned. They want the person to get the care he needs to get better. They also want community members to get the right story, versus gossip or social media speculation.
Stevens said he spoke with the man on the phone Monday. "It was a beautiful moment," Stevens said, adding that the person was very remorseful.
"We had some time to pray together and I was able to offer forgiveness for the situation and he just wants to find a way to make things better," Stevens said. "We are rooting for him and believing for God to do something good for the church, that individual and for his family. We want good things to happen."
Matthew David Powers, 39, was charged Tuesday for burglary in Sixth District Carlton County Court, for crimes related to breaking into and damaging the church.
He faces felony charges of first degree damage to property, second degree burglary – government, religious, historic or school building – without consent and commits crime, and third degree burglary, along with misdemeanor charges of false fire alarm and tampering with a motor vehicle without permission.
According to the criminal complaint, in addition to all the video evidence, church staff also found a wallet outside the building laying open with Powers' ID card face up. There was also blood on the broken church van window.
Powers was ordered to schedule a comprehensive assessment and a mental health assessment within days of his release Tuesday, and report to his probation officer. An omnibus hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28.
Fixing the damage
Stevens called police and insurance on Saturday, and a company specializing in flood and fire remediation came to begin assessing the damage the same day, bringing fans and instructions to the church.
People from Good Hope and other churches and volunteers came Sunday afternoon to help move everything out of the lower floor as well as the kitchen and other parts of the ground floor that were damaged. Giant powerful fans blew air through the building as people packed anything they could salvage into half a dozen U-Haul trailers outside the back door. Much more furniture was spread around the parking lot, drying in the sun, while soggy carpet squares covered the deck above.
Many of the congregation's 400-plus members came to help, or brought food and drink to nourish volunteers. Word got around quickly. Having an all-day Christian music festival going on at Veterans Park on Saturday was also serendipitous.
Rena Alseth was at Good Hope by noon Saturday. She'd heard about the break-in from her sister-in-law, Tami Johnson, who heard about it "from John at the Wood City Worship Festival."
"I felt so bad. I was really excited to come to church today," Alseth said, noting that she usually goes on Saturday evenings. "All I thought was, what do I need to do to help?"
Wood City organizers also made an announcement at the community worship service Sunday, which brought more volunteers.
Stevens estimated there were over 100 people at the church at 1 p.m. Sunday, just wanting to help.
"That's beautiful," he said. "There were people from different churches, people I've never even met before and a lot of people I know, of course. It's just heartwarming to see the outpour of support."
It isn't Stevens first experience with flood remediation - he volunteered after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Ike in Texas and several other disasters, plus the 2012 flood locally - but it's the first time he's had to do this kind of work at his own church.
Church members stepped up Sunday. Celia Gauthier, ministry administrative pastor, and her son, Darren Roe, talked with Stevens and others about next steps, including moving all the appliances out of the kitchen upstairs so workers could come in. Many hands made light work.
By Tuesday, Stevens reported they were at a standstill with volunteer help. Nothing else is needed, for now.
"We're handing things over to the professionals," he said.
They've also figured out where and how the congregation will meet until the Good Hope building is safe and restored.
Stevens said Our Savior's Lutheran Church, at 612 12th St. in Cloquet, has opened up its building to them. Our Savior's will be moving its services from 9:30 to 8:30 a.m. starting Sunday, Aug. 27. Good Hope will hold services at Our Savior's at 6:30 p.m. each Saturday and 11 a.m. on Sundays starting that last weekend in August. Stevens estimated it may be two or three months before they get back into their own church.
"It's humbling to me that they would move their service for us. That's an amazing thing," he said.
This weekend Good Hope will gather at its own building, so they can show people what's going on and share plans. "We can meet, hug each other, be together from probably from 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday morning until about noon," he said. "We want to help people understand what's happened."
Our Saviors wasn't the only church to offer to step up, Stevens said.
"I want to say 'thank you' to all the churches and ministries that offered help and space," he said. "I'm so thankful for the outpouring of love from the community."