In the last few days of 2020, parishioners of the Martin Luther King Jr. Presbyterian Church in Springfield were faced with the unthinkable: Their place of worship had gone up in flames due to a racist arson attack. The predominantly-black church, which dates back to the 1890s, was in ruins.

Now, a little over three years later, the community is still working to rebuild and heal. The restoration process is taxing, but through a shared vision and hope for a new beginning, the church is on a new journey.

That work couldn’t be done without the help of leaders who foster love and peace in all they do and help others find joy in a seemingly bleak process. That’s why GBH’s All Things Considered is celebrating the Reverend Dr. Terrlyn Curry Avery, pastor of the MLK Presbyterian Church, on the Joy Beat

The Reverend joined host Arun Rath to discuss the work she’s doing to rebuild the community. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Arun Rath: We were just talking as we got settled in about how it’s hard to imagine that it’s been three years. Obviously, it’s been a challenging three years. Tell us about what you’re feeling right now at this particular moment, because I can’t imagine the full range of emotions.

Rev. Dr. Curry Avery: Well, at this particular moment, I’m feeling excitement because I’m praying we’re close to the end. We are hoping that we can be complete by mid to late summer, so I’m feeling a bit of joy right now.

Sometimes, when I’m having discussions around what has happened, of course, it does bring up some of the old feelings. But right now, in this moment, it’s the feeling of joy.

Rath: Tell us about the progress over the last few years.

Curry Avery: It’s been slow because of COVID, actually. It happened at the end of 2020, but some things were delayed a bit, so it’s been a slow process. We’ve really just been rebuilding since around the middle of last year.

We’ve had some delays a little bit, but for right now, things are moving rather smoothly. We have the outside redone, and we’re now working on the inside of the building, which needs to be completely gutted out.

Rath: What has worship been like during that period?

Curry Avery: If we can find some beauty and grace in this moment, it’s that it happened during a time when we were already worshipping alone, so we didn’t feel as displaced as we would have if we were to have been in the building. We worship online on the fourth Sunday of each month, and on the first and third Sundays, we worship in the MLK Family Service Center gym. On second Sundays, we worship with another church. We’re finding our bearings here through all of it.

Rath: Again, it’s the most awful kind of thing to go through, and I just go back to how gutting it is to see a house of worship destroyed. But at the same time, hearing you talk about improvising how you worship during the pandemic—and obviously, with the loss of your facility—in a way, it harkens back to the old days of the church, right? The church was wherever you needed to worship.

Curry Avery: Exactly. When the church burned down, I was very clear with the parishioners and with the community that the church building burned down, but not the church. We have continued to do what churches are designed to do, which is worship God and also minister to the community and to those who are in need spiritually.

We actually have not missed a beat even though the church burned down. Again, I think that was really because we were already in place with COVID. We’ve continued to do diaper drives, mental health workshops and initiatives—we’ve just found other locations to do them in. We have continued to feed those who are in need, so we just keep it moving.

Rath: As I remember, you’re not just a Reverend; you’re a licensed psychologist. You understand how people deal with trauma. You talked about how grace also plays into this, but it seems like an interesting combination.

Curry Avery: My belief is that grace is really the center of everything—grace and love. For us, we’ve tried to move in that grace, and at the same time, we deal with the reality of trauma. It is traumatizing to know that one would burn down your house of worship simply because of the color of your skin or because of your racial or ethnic background. That is traumatizing.

What we do is—and particularly me as a leader—is that we try to work through the psychology and the spirituality of the reality of what happened while continuing to move through it in a state of grace because we know that God is always gracious to us. We, in turn, are gracious to other people and try to be gracious to one another.

That does not mean we don’t expect the person who committed this atrocity to be held accountable. We can still love that individual and move with grace, but there are consequences to our behavior. We all have to pay the price when we engage in certain behaviors.

Rath: It’s still astounding and very moving to me—someone who grew up going to church—that almost inexplicable Christian quality of forgiveness that you’re eliciting. It’s hard to understand, but it’s not hard to feel it.

Curry Avery: Right. But I do want to say, though, that forgiveness does not mean that we don’t hold people accountable. Forgiveness is really about saying, “I cannot harbor this in my heart to the point that it’s going to let it interfere with the work that I am called to do. I’m not going to let this eat me up. I’m going to do the work that I need to do to put myself in a better place.”

I do not believe in spiritual bypassing, so I want to be clear about that, because some people will say, “Oh, the Lord is going to take care of this.” That is not the teaching that I believe in. I believe that people do things that are evil. People do things that are hurtful and hateful, but we don’t have to live in that space.

We have to work through the trauma of the sadness and the grief—I mean, the grief of your house of worship being burned down, all those memories that you have in there. Let’s work through it. We’re not gonna pretend it didn’t happen. We’re going to face it, and we’re going to face it with grace. We face it with love. We hold that person accountable, but we don’t stay in the dark place.

At the beginning, you asked me how I was feeling, and I said, “I’m in a place of joy.” I want it to be clear that person never took away my joy because that person didn’t give me my joy. The joy is internal, but I’m feeling really excited at this moment because I feel like we’re close. I feel good in this present moment about what we’ve accomplished in the last three years and what we’ll accomplish moving forward.

Rath: Before we let you go, if people want to help out with the rebuilding, is there a way for them to help out?

Curry Avery: Yes! They can go to for more information.

If you’d like to nominate someone or something for the Joy Beat, leave us a voicemail at (617) - 300 - BEAT (2328).