The previous part of this lengthy blog offered the essential background on Zarephath, a small religious community in northern New Jersey, originally known as Pillar of Fire Church, built entirely on a floodplain. In 2011, every building in Zarephath suffered devastation from flooding induced by Hurricane Irene. But that wasn’t the first time. Hurricane Floyd flooded the community in 1999, and Tropical Storm Doria walloped it almost 30 years prior. Clearly it suffers losses that are both severe and repetitive. Though FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program has stringent standards for the restoration of structures that fall under this classification (specifically calling them “severe repetitive loss properties”), the leadership in Zarephath recognized that the time had come. It was no longer practical to remain at such a flood prone site. This photo-heavy second part (almost a montage) serves as a sort of “floodplain reconnaissance”, attempting to discover exactly to what degree the leadership of Zarephath has relocated its operations.
A gloomy Saturday afternoon trip to Zarephath in early spring 2015 did not reveal the abandoned settlement that I had expected.Quite the opposite. Cars parked along the drives, landscape trimmed, and buildings in remarkably good condition. In fact, if I hadn’t read about Zarephath’s recent unfortunate history, I would never have even known it had suffered any sort of major disaste, and certainly no evidence of demolition. But an assessment of the geography reveals the community’s precarious condition. The most obvious flood prevention device is a small levee.Climb up the levee, and the distant Millstone River seem innocuous on a calm, cloudy day.
But the large stretch of land between the inside of the levee and the river itself reveals wetland characteristics.Most likely this land is part of the floodway—an area inundated so routinely that it would be foolhardy to construct anything on it. But clearly even the levee wasn’t good enough during those previous storms, and waters that overtopped the berms poured right into Zarephath’s campus-like setting. (Frankly, I’m surprised I could find no evidence of further flooding at Zarephath during 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, but perhaps it made little news because the community was still processing insurance claims from Hurricane Irene.) At any rate, the Millstone River poses only part of the flood risk; as the map below indicates, the majority of Zarephath sits between the Delaware and Raritan Canal and the Millstone River. The only means of ingress is via a bridge across that canal.And here it is from the other direction, looking toward campus.Pillar of Fire ministries and Somerset Christian College must confront flood risk on both sides of the elliptical patch of land that comprises most of Zarephath.
But, at first blush, things looked pretty good:Having lived in New Orleans immediately after Katrina, I didn’t see the “bath ring” of striped brown across any of the buildings, which one expects after a flood. None of the windows had that fogged look.Notice there’s even patio furniture out front, which is surprising, considering the former Somerset Christian College is in the process of relocating, after the complete loss after Irene. Another nearby structure still had visible administrative files sitting in the windows—an impossible condition unless serious intervention took place after the flood.
Still, a closer scrutiny of the campus revealed that something is amiss. The same building featured in the previous photo also had a garden level that seemed visibly weather-beaten. While the upper floors were functional, the window wells all appeared boarded.But the exterior lights on an adjacent building suggested that the leadership at the campus has continued to service most if not all of the structures with electricity.Perhaps the executive boards for Pillar of Fire and Somerset Christian decided both to restore and mitigate most of the buildings. After all, by this point they’re no strangers to disaster and have been through FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program process before. In fact, the historic church harbored a subtle commemorative placard, just to the right of this entrance door.
It delineated the extent of the waters after the Floyd flood. Zooming back out, the context became clear: the overtopping of the levee and the canal steeped Zarephath in waters taller than the average person.
The result is a mixed bag. And the problems at Zarephath became a bit more obvious after traveling further into the campus, beyond the main entrance and closer to the Millstone River levee. At least a few structures looked as though something was seriously amiss. A small ancillary building next to the previous elevated structure appeared completely unused.And the building immediately next to it was mothballed…all the way up to the mansard roof.Elsewhere on the grounds, more on the campus periphery, a few buildings that appear to serve as residences looked timeworn but habitable.And a nearby mid-century structure seemed to serve as the main office.The final verdict: authorities never fully condemned Zarephath as originally planned. Far too many of the structures are not just fully intact but seem completely operational. Yet nothing here seems fully settled; it is a campus in transition. While the press releases suggest that the president of Somerset Christian College ultimately intended to relocate the facilities to a nearby office park (under the new name Pillar College), from the looks of things, many administrative elements of both the school and church continue in this floodplain.
But not everything. Note from the map below that the Zarephath properties also include a huge piece of land south of the Delaware and Raritan Canal, seen in the Google map referenced earlier. And what are the conditions of this property?You can see it in the background, at the horizon line behind the bridge. While not remarkably high, the ground does appear to slope upward in the distance.And the leadership of Zarephath seems to have capitalized on this comparatively safe terrain.At the top of the slope is a huge new church building, not quite complete when I visited in March.When complete, this will serve as the sanctuary for Pillar of Fire International, while an adjacent midcentury building and modular unit both supplement with other offices and ministries.From the parking lot of the new church in new Zarephath, one can look to the road across the canal at old Zarephath, to see the change in grade. Comparatively speaking, this is high ground.I’m not fully aware of all the machinations that have taken place since the 2011 flooding, but it’s hard not to notice the wide variety of names for all the different entities that come together in Zarephath. Even the sign below, difficult as it is to read, offers some idea:And most evidence, both from my photography and subsequent online research, suggests that Pillar of Fire International is the parent name of a network of churches spread throughout the country, while Zarephath Christian Church is the home church at the New Jersey headquarters. But, judging from the renaming of Somerset Christian to Pillar College, the entire institution is reinventing itself. And, upon researching the history, it’s easy to see why.
Up to this point I’ve been coy about Alma Bridwell White, the founder of Pillar of Fire International Ministries over a century ago. But she was instrumental to the church’s expansion from a Pentecostal breakaway into a powerful ministry on its own terms. She was the country’s first female bishop. She was an ardent feminist, advocating for full equality for women in the church and public life. Yet she didn’t extend her liberationist views to other oppressed groups: White was fiercely anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and openly supportive of the Ku Klux Klan in New Jersey. From 1916 to 1933, she published a monthly periodical called The Good Citizen, which simultaneously extolled the virtues of Klan and promoted the advancement of rights for white Protestant women (while denying them to others). Even after White’s death in 1946 and the decline of the Klan’s influence across the northern US, Pillar of Fire International continued to endorse Klan ideology and activity through White’s successors, particularly her son Arthur Kent White. Only in the years after his 1981 death did Pillar of Fire officially and wholeheartedly repudiate the hateful rhetoric espoused by its founders, and by that point the ministry had retracted from its peak of 52 churches down to six, of which Zarephath Christian Church (ZCC) is one.
Bearing this in mind, it’s hard not to discern two parallel rebranding forces at play in Zarephath: the incremental physical relocation from the floodplain and the ideological disassociation from a largely discredited, bigoted past. Somerset Christian College has revived as Pillar College, but, as recently the late 1970s, Zarephath hosted the Alma White College at the exact same campus. These days, it’s quite difficult to find anything in Zarephath that references Alma White. And how successful has Pillar of Fire International been at opening itself up to multiculturalism? The fact that one of the buildings serves exclusively as a Spanish-language ministry suggests that the currently leadership has disavowed nativism from previous generations.
And, purely coincidentally, during my visit to Zarephath I was able to get a sense of what Pillar of Fire International’s ministry was all about: a service was underway on that dour Saturday. Since the church on the higher ground of new Zarephath was not yet complete, ZCC held their service at an old gymnasium—on the flooded lands of old Zarephath.So what did it look like? Should I have expected Celtic crosses and white hoods? Of course not.It looked like just about any other Evangelical church one might come across. Same praise band music too. And the sort of multi-racial congregation that one would hope to see in this part of New Jersey. From the looks of both this service and all of their promotional paraphernalia (both online and at the entrance to this gymnasium sanctuary), the leadership at Pillar of Fire International have completely rehabilitated the religious community’s image from its days of Alma White’s unabashed support of the Klan.
As much as I wanted to avoid allegorical references to flooding from Genesis, it’s hard to ignore them. Zarephath and Pillar of Fire International have had to confront catastrophe in two major respects: first through the loss of property from multiple floods, secondly through the loss of reputation, after a shift in worldview exposed the sins of the mother. Though a fraction of its former size, Pillar of Fire International seems to enjoy a resilient ministry and the will to re-emerge, building a new church on higher land and rebranding the college to continue its mission. Considering its dubious affiliations, it’s a marvel that the organization still exists, though it clearly comes with an almost complete metaphoric exorcism of its founder and her influence. (I suppose it’s noteworthy that the feminist leanings have survived; one of the pastors at ZCC is female at a time when most Evangelical churches—or at least those who endorse Biblical inerrancy—still shun the idea of female leadership.) I suspect that, in ten or even just five years, Zarephath will look very different than it does today. But, considering what it’s been through, I feel confident that it will prevail, even if it never again grows to fifty churches. And its survival will owe little to FEMA or the National Flood Insurance Program. And it will owe even less to the exist signage off of Interstate 287.