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Ala. churches rebound after arson attacks

CENTREVILLE, Ala. (BP)–On any given night, someone somewhere in the state of Alabama is guarding the perimeter of a Baptist church to keep from finding it in ashes the next morning.

That’s reality in rural Alabama a year after five small Baptist congregations in Bibb County awakened to find that arsonists had struck their churches during the night, burning three to the ground and damaging two in February 2006. Several days later, four Baptist congregations in west Alabama found their churches had suffered the same fate.

And while three college-aged men were arrested a month later for the nine fires, sporadic arson attacks on churches of different denominations continued to plague the state. Rocky Mount Baptist Church in Talladega County joined the list of arson victims last October.

Jim Parker, pastor of Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield, said a year of sifting through the ashes hasn’t been altogether bad. What seemed like a brutal step backward actually has put his church nearly a decade ahead in its growth process, he told The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

“We’re just really blessed beyond measure for all that’s been done here,” Parker said of the heaping donations of architectural and construction services, funding and furniture that his Bibb Baptist Association church has received or has been offered in the past year. “We’ve got tools we never had before to really reach out.”

Ashby Baptist, one of the first to lose its buildings in the string of arson attacks, has been meeting in two mobile chapels provided by the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. The congregation plans to construct a new building that’s bigger and in a better location than the original.

The current Ashby site is tucked away in the woods, but thanks to a church member’s donation, the new building will sit on a 10-acre plot on state Highway 139, a major Bibb County thoroughfare.

“We determined with our demographics we needed to build for 250 to 300 people to meet the needs of the community,” Parker said, adding that the church’s current property wasn’t suitable for that size facility. “We really have the opportunity to reach into three counties where we are. I know God is broadening our tent. We can take in more people because of all this.”

The church has cleared the land and broken ground and is waiting for bids on the building, he said.

Nearby Rehobeth Baptist Church in Lawley lost its sanctuary the same night as Ashby.

“Things are going very well, about as normal as they can be under the circumstances,” pastor Duane Schliep said.

Since the fire, the congregation has met for worship in the fellowship hall that survived and has held Sunday School in a mobile chapel from the State Board of Missions.

Like Ashby and the other burned churches, Rehobeth has received donations of money and supplies from people and churches all over the nation. Many of the churches also received gifts from Alabama Baptists through the State Board of Missions totaling $192,000 and funds from Birmingham-Southern College, where the three arsonists met as students.

Contractors have been reviewing Rehobeth’s plans for a new facility, which include a sanctuary, office and Sunday School space to be built next to the existing fellowship hall, Schliep said. Groundbreaking is slated for March 18.

Antioch Baptist Church in Centreville and Old Union Baptist Church in Randolph suffered only minor damage when they were burned last year. Antioch needed about $8,000 in repairs, including having the ceiling replaced and fixing some damaged doors. Church members there decided to keep the burned communion table as a memorial.

“It’s a complete miracle that our church didn’t burn,” Jack Allen, pastor of Antioch Baptist, said, noting that the arsonists apparently tried to kick in five doors before finally breaking in and setting a fire at the pulpit. “But I truly believe that God wanted us to be able to help Pleasant Sabine.”

Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church in nearby Centreville was the fifth church set ablaze that first night of arson attacks. A predominantly black church not affiliated with the Alabama Baptist State Convention, Pleasant Sabine Baptist didn’t have the immediate connections to statewide Baptist resources that Ashby and Rehobeth did.

But Allen was there to make sure the church got the help it needed. “Fifty Carpenters for Christ came in and built the church back. It was all done by volunteers,” Allen said. “The volunteers stayed at our church while they were working at Pleasant Sabine.”

Pleasant Sabine plans to host a countywide revival backed by the Bibb Association as a victory celebration.

“The whole thing has just been the biggest blessing you’ve ever seen,” Allen said. “God has kept our churches alive.

Though the inside of Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville was a total loss, the congregation got back into its building last July, a mere five months after the fire. Pickens Baptist Association churches fed and housed volunteer teams from Baptist churches around the state that gutted and renovated the interior of the church.

Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee broke ground on its property Jan. 7 and has poured footings for its new building. The proposed facility — twice the size of the church’s original building that burned to the ground — will include a sanctuary, fellowship hall and library intended for use as a community outreach tool. Church members currently worship in a mobile chapel provided by the State Board of Missions.

The congregation of Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle, which suffered smoke damage, got back in its building at the end of the summer. In the wake of the fire, a church member was given a scholarship to Birmingham-Southern College as a gift to the church from the school. The scholarship recipient, Demetrius Foy, serves as interim pastor of Spring Valley.

The congregation of Galilee Baptist Church in Panola, whose building burned to the ground, is nearing the completion of its new building on land closer to the center of town than its original site. The building — a roughly 10,000-square-foot metal-frame building — will house its sanctuary and educational space. In January a team of about 50 volunteers from several Baptist churches in north Alabama began framing up the interior of the building, sections of which will be two-story.

“It’s been one of the most blessed years of my life,” Gary Farley, director of missions for the Pickens Baptist Association, said of his work in coordinating repairs to the four west Alabama churches. “It’s been such a neat thing to be at a point where you see God working miracles one after another.”

At Rocky Mount Baptist Church near Sylacauga, attendance has risen by 20 percent since the church was burned in October. Members have gathered in the family fellowship building while they make plans to build back their 3,000-square-foot sanctuary beginning in the summer.
Grace Thornton is assistant editor of The Alabama Baptist, on the Web at www.thealabamabaptist.org.

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