John Baumgartner woke up the morning of Aug. 28, 2014, to a series of text messages from friends and family, each saying a version of the same thing: “The church is on fire.”

Baumgartner is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles, but he grew up in Lorain, Ohio, as a fourth-generation member of First Lutheran Church. He maintained close ties with the congregation and attended when he came home to visit family. Now he was seeing photos and footage of the building he knew so well in flames.

The arsonist has never been apprehended. “It was this deep sense of community grief,” Baumgartner recalled. “‘What can we all do to not let the tragedy be the final word?’ That was an enormous impetus to [say], ‘I can do something.’”

That something turned out to be The Fire Song, a documentary directed and edited by Baumgartner. The film tells the story of First, a congregation that had been a pillar of their community and now stood at a crossroads.

Baumgartner calls the experience of making the documentary “a five-year journey to turn overwhelming tragedy into triumph.”

The journey began when Bruce Whitman, a member of First and the chair of the new building committee, approached Baumgartner about the possibility of making a documentary. Thirty-five years ago, Whitman taught Baumgartner in Sunday school, and the two have maintained a friendship ever since.

Harrowing footage shows the church building as firefighters smash through its prominent stained-glass windows.

“My initial thought was, let’s just document some of this and we’ll have a nice record of what happened,” said Whitman, who eventually became producer of The Fire Song. “It didn’t start off as a very ambitious project.”

As events unfolded, and as Whitman and Baumgartner discussed how the film might capture a historic congregation in an emotional and transformational moment, the scope expanded. “It just grew and blossomed into something more,” Whitman said.

The Fire Song opens with Jimmy Madsen, a co-pastor of First for 37 years, lighting a candle. He was preparing to retire when the fire struck, but afterward he decided to stay on. “It didn’t seem to me that would be a good time for the congregation to be without a pastor,” Madsen says on camera.

Baumgartner then cuts to harrowing footage of the church building as firefighters smash through its prominent stained-glass windows.

Woody Chamberlain, a co-pastor of First who died last year, remembers the devastation in the documentary: “It was just a building, and it was just a window, and I loved it and I miss it and we’ll never have that again—but it was still a thing. But you can have a lot of emotions tied up with things.”

A history of service and music

For nearly a century, the church building had been located on one of the busiest corners in downtown Lorain. A tornado destroyed many church buildings in the area in 1924, but First managed to avoid much damage then, which positioned its congregation to respond to the community’s needs. Members established a soup kitchen, beginning a long history of neighborhood service.

“That still exists today,” Chamberlain says of the ministry. “They said they would do it until it wasn’t needed anymore.”

In addition to its reputation for service, First maintains a significant musical culture and legacy. David Boe, its longtime organist and a professor at nearby Oberlin College, led the congregation in commissioning a world-class organ in the 1960s. “Organ builders all over the world knew about that instrument,” Madsen says in the documentary. The organ was destroyed in the fire.

When the congregation relocated to a middle school for three years, members faced big, sometimes contentious decisions, including whether to rebuild and whether to remain at the downtown location.

Ultimately, First’s members decided to rebuild downtown, across the street from the original building’s intersection. Construction began in 2016, with most of the costs covered by insurance.

“What can we all do to not let the tragedy be the final word?”

Facing new construction and the retirement of its longtime pastor, First started the call process for a new pastor under a hybrid plan. In May 2017, Rosalina Rivera began her call as pastor of First; six months later, the new building opened. The following month, Madsen retired.

A dedication concert for the congregation’s new organ was held Aug. 26, 2019, with people from across the country attending. “This instrument is now known too,” Madsen says onscreen.

The Fire Song opened Aug. 21, 2021, at the historic Lorain Palace Theatre—the same place Baumgartner premiered his first film, Pains of a Broken Window, when he was a teenager. Coming full circle in that way professionally and personally was an emotional experience for the director. Baumgartner describes the film’s creation as “five years of trusting.”

The documentary closes by showcasing elements of First’s original building that survived and have become part of the new structure.  Some of the stained glass was saved and restored, its former cornerstone was placed into the new building, and panels on the sanctuary door were hammered out of recovered organ pipes.

“One of the things we did really well was the incorporation of some of the old elements of the church into the new church,” Whitman said. “For me, that was very moving.”

The documentary is now available to rent or purchase at

John Potter
John G. Potter is content editor of Living Lutheran. He lives in St. Paul, Minn.

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