Westmont Magazine A Trial by Fire
When hundreds of homes burned nearby in 1993, Malibu Presbyterian Church served as a FEMA center for local victims. This year, a wind-swept wildfire consumed the church as Pastor Greg Hughes ’85 and his family watched on TV.
He’d arrived at the site soon after the blaze broke out, but firefighters expected their perimeter to hold, so Greg removed some computers and left. The fierce winds nearly knocked him off his feet, however, and scattered sparks that ignited the steeple. He never had a chance to save his large library of commentaries and religious books — or anything else. Helpless at home, he saw live TV coverage of flames engulfing the church (wrongly identified as Hughes Research Lab) with his wife, Kay, their 7-year-old son and 4-year-old twins.
“We lost a building, not a church,” Greg says. Services resumed the next Sunday at Malibu Performing Arts Center. The preschool relocated to the Malibu synagogue, the booming college group meets at the Salvation Army Camp, and youth programs continue in homes. It will take several years for the building resurrection committee to complete new facilities. Insurance will cover only part of the cost; the church’s share may total $10 million. The congregation recently raised $1 million to renovate the sanctuary as well as $500,000 for the World Impact Teen Center, an inner-city ministry. Despite their loss, the Malibu church sent the funds to World Impact as planned.
With his congregation scattered, Greg was overwhelmed at first. “There’s so much to do,” he says. “It’s hard for me to relax as we don’t feel settled yet.” But he’s hopeful. “Our church burned down, but we’re fired up,” he says. “We lost a lovely space with many wonderful memories, but we have an opportunity to confirm our Great Commission vision and our entrepreneurial spirit.” The annual Thanksgiving food drive took place as usual weeks after the fire, and support for inner-city ministries and missionaries in Argentina, Africa and Burma continues. The mission provides the true home for the congregation: “Connect the unconnected to Christ and together grow in full devotion to him.”
Greg has always considered the church as Malibu’s unofficial community center, with the congregation hosting popular events such as a father-daughter Valentine dance and a Christmas tea for the neighborhood. This outreach will continue, he says. “We’ll be the same church with the same outward focus.”
Greg arrived at Westmont as a preacher’s kid planning to major in psychology or business. But classes with New Testament scholar Robert Gundry, where he fell in love with studying the Scriptures, changed his life. After graduating from Princeton Theological Seminary, he ran an inner-city “bus” church, Bartram Evangelical, for Tony Campolo in Philadelphia. “We picked up kids at the housing projects; the local churches didn’t want them, so we started Bartram as a place to take them,” he says. He next served as associate pastor at Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in Alamitos, Calif., for 10 years before becoming senior pastor at Malibu Presbyterian in 2000.
“Malibu residents need Christ but don’t necessarily know it,” he says. “People in the inner city are much more open to help. Malibu is one of the unreached areas of the world with less than 3 percent of the population attending religious services. It’s a media center that shapes the world, and we want to shape it.”