FAME’S Pastor Smith Claims “Triumph Over Tragedy” — Fire Mobilizes a City and a Nation
By Carla Thomas
FAME, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Oakland, held its first service at a temporary location, Temple Beth Abraham on MacArthur Blvd, after their Telegraph Avenue building went up in flames last month. The temple is just 12 walking blocks away from FAME’s charred structure.
Amidst the music notes of an organ and shouts of “Amen,” throughout the super-charged service, Pastor Rodney D. Smith encouraged his congregation to stand on their faith. He also predicted that FAME, with the help of friends throughout the nation, would rise above the ashes be better than before. Smith’s sermon topic dealt with the concept of liminal space, which is defined as a period of transition. He cited the biblical scripture of three Hebrews engulfed in fire, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednago, but miraculously unburned and protected by God’s liminal space.
“You make sure the history books say, ‘They rose above the ashes and whatever was before, it’s greater now!’ We didn’t give up or throw in the towel,” said Smith.
On Sunday night Feb. 26, fire fighters doused the FAME building with water hoses for over 5 hours. Video footage of the fire, which burned into early Monday morning was tweeted initially by the Oakland Fire Department. The footage went viral, allowing people across the nation to view the fiery flames and billowing smoke, causing the tragedy to resonate beyond the local community. The fact that FAME is the oldest Black church in Oakland further fueled empathy toward a homeless congregation and a piece of American history burning down.
“Family you are no longer FAME, you are now America’s church,” said Smith, as parishioners stood from their pews, cheering in agreement.
Rev. Smith said Rabbi Mark Bloom, Temple Beth Abraham’s leader, welcomed FAME’s congregants with open arms and has offered space for their services through March. During the week, Bloom spoke to the media saying he was familiar with Pastor Smith, so extending the invitation was natural. Rabbi Bloom also expressed that the commonality of the history struggles and abuse of Black people and Jewish people being “othered and ostracized” throughout society added to the significance of the FAME Oakland’s use of the synagogue.
Pastor Rodney Smith said he was grateful for the outpouring of support and is “laser-focused on keeping hope, a bright future and continuity of services for our members at the forefront.”
Smith, originally based in Atlanta, Georgia, began pastoring in Oakland two years ago. “Rabbi Bloom was one of the first faith leaders to reach out to me at that time, giving me a tour of this very facility,” said Smith of the synagogue. “We had lunch and became friends. We had no idea we’d (FAME) be here two years later.”
While FAME will worship at the temple for a short time, they have yet to determine a long-term plan.
Smith also plans to produce an ecumenical service to celebrate Oakland’s resilience. “The building is burned down, but the ministry doesn’t stop. The church is not the building, the church is what’s in your heart. And with our faith, we believe that this happened for a reason giving us an opportunity to bring people together,” he said.
While the start of the fire is still under investigation, there has been some speculation that a homeless person may have started a fire to create warmth. “The frustration is that California and the city have many resources and with homeless people living under bridges and in their cars, this is an old topic that needs to be addressed. This fire presents an opportunity for us to do something about it,” said Smith.
Pastor Smith strongly feels that his church’s tragedy will change the trajectory of the entire city.
Smith said, “FAME is Oakland. FAME is Black History. FAME is strong. Oakland is strong. FAME was one of the first institutions in the area to educate Black people.” He described a scenario that would have made Martin Luther King Jr. proud: The city re-examines itself and billionaires, millionaires, the middle class, the poor, the elected officials, public officials and faith leaders of all faiths rise up together to not only rebuild the church — but transform the community and city.
“It’s going to happen. The history books will show how the tragedy at 3701 Telegraph led everyone to step up to the plate and change everything.”
After Sunday service and a brief press conference on site, Smith was chauffeured to Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ in East Oakland to gain fund-raising support to rebuild FAME.
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