WASILLA, Alaska – Members of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's church gathered in high spirits at a middle school Sunday, two days after their building was badly damaged by a fire authorities are investigating as arson.
Palin, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, did not attend services Sunday because she was in Juneau preparing to propose a state budget, said her spokesman, Bill McAllister.
The congregation realizes the church is more than the building, said John Doak, associate pastor at Wasilla Bible Church.
"The definition of the church is the body of Christ, made up of God's people," Doak said after the hourlong service at Wasilla Middle School attended by about 1,200 people. "The church is still there. We are the church."
Damage to the 2 1/2-year-old church building is estimated at $1 million. The blaze was set at the main entrance Friday night while a small group, including two children, were inside. No one was injured.
Fire Chief James Steele said the blaze is being investigated as an arson.
Patsy Inks said the news initially shocked and frustrated her. But by Sunday, she was feeling blessed, she said at the school, where worshippers lingered over a potluck dinner for a church family leaving Alaska.
"This tragedy has brought us all together," Inks said, her eyes tearing up.
Palin, who was not at the church at the time of the fire, stopped by Saturday. According to McAllister, Palin told an assistant pastor she was sorry if the fire was connected to the "undeserved negative attention" the church has received since she became the vice presidential candidate Aug. 29.
Worshippers acknowledged the possible Palin connection with the fire, but more in a "gee, maybe" sort of way, said Rob Tracy, who shuttled people to the school for services. But people are speculating about other motives.
"It's just as likely to be some troubled person who has a beef with God," Tracy said.
"Or some local punks," Doak said.
After Palin was named John McCain's running mate, the evangelical church was the subject of intense scrutiny. Early in her campaign, Palin's church was criticized for promoting in a Sunday bulletin a Focus on the Family "Love Won Out Conference" in Anchorage.
The conference promised to "help men and women dissatisfied with living homosexually understand that same-sex attractions can be overcome."
Wasilla, the governor's hometown, is 40 miles north of Anchorage.