Gwinwood Retreat Center, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) camp in the Northern Lights Region, sits at the edge of Hicks Lake in Lacey, WA. On a good day, you can see Mt. Rainier in the distance.

But on July 4, 2023, the only thing Gwinwood’s neighbors across the water could see was smoke.

The church camp’s largest meeting space, MacKinnon Lodge, was in flames.

You’d think that the fire would spell nothing but disaster for Gwinwood. Yet its staff and directors have taken this tragedy and turned it into an opportunity to partner with Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF) and dream big – to change not only MacKinnon, but the camp itself.

There are 17 buildings on the property, including Westwood, a conference center tucked away in the woods. But with the camp’s primary dining room and kitchen on the lower level, an expansive event space on the upper level, and a panoramic view of the water, MacKinnon was the main activities building.

The City Fire Marshall believes that a faulty light fixture is likely the ignition point and the cause of the fire.

“Most church fires are man-made,” points out Jim Michel, DCEF Building and Capital Services Advisor and Building Disaster Response Coordinator. “It goes back to a belief that everything will last forever.”

Thankfully no one was present at the camp when disaster struck, but by the time the fire department arrived at the scene, MacKinnon was fully engulfed. Several hours later the fire was contained, but the lodge was deemed a total loss. As the camp’s executive director, Kate Ayers was the first staff member to be called.

“As I was standing there watching it burn, I thought, ‘We are being given a chance to construct a building that is forward-thinking and inclusive,’ she recalls.

Three days later, Kate contacted Jim, who went over what she and her colleagues needed to do, including compiling a detailed list of what was in the facility and hiring a local architect.

Following his advice, Kate and her team decided to demolish the old MacKinnon facility and hired Jennifer Weddermann to design a building that was up to code, fully accessible, had appropriate heat, and with a kitchen that could accommodate large groups. So far, Jennifer has provided Gwinwood with preliminary drawings for a much brighter, open, and energy-efficient building that will offer a better view of the lake from the rear.

On his end, Jim continues to guide John and his team in conversations with the adjuster.

“Jim has shown us how all the pieces come together,” confesses Kate. “Something bigger is at work and he is at the center of it all.”

In November, Jim visited Gwinwood for its annual meeting. As he toured the site, he noticed new growth peeking out beside the scorched remains of MacKinnon – a fitting image, as the Gwinwood team hopes to start building a new structure in the spring.

“Even though there was virtually nothing of the building that could be salvaged,” remembers Jim, “the memories will always be there. Now the new building will be better than what was there before, and new memories can be made.”

Through the generosity of our donors, we offer the Building Disaster Response Service at no charge to congregations and other organizations. If you would like to support this work, participate in our New Ways into the World campaign, which will provide funds to sustain our work with congregations dealing with the devastating impact of a disaster.