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Ala. pastor bounces back after arson

RAGLAND, Ala. (BP)–Ray Speakman sits in a creaky chair on his front porch in St. Clair County, Ala., letting the cool wind hit his face and ruffle his hair.

“Who knows what kind of weather that will bring,” he says of the wind. It’s probably ushering in a summer rain, he notes.

But in Speakman’s heart and in the hearts of his church people, he says it’s springlike weather all the way -— new life is cropping up all the time.

Speakman, blind since age 4, is in his 19th year as pastor of Refuge Baptist Church, in Ragland, Ala. The church, small but determined, took a hit in late April when arsonists set fire to its building, burning the fellowship hall and damaging the sanctuary. The arson came more than a year after several other Baptist churches in Alabama were arson victims.

But Refuge Baptist is bouncing back already. The sound of hammers and Skill saws fills the air around the country church as repairs are made to the damaged facility. The congregation was able to meet in the sanctuary for the first time May 13.

And Speakman says healing is happening at Refuge. “Sometimes we forget about God’s miracles — that He can heal today like He did in Bible times.”

Speakman should know.

In October, he took a hit of his own. A diabetic, Speakman experienced renal failure and got a serious staph infection.

The doctors told his wife, Sue, he could die at any time. During the two months he was in the hospital, she was put on call seven times with the news that he wouldn’t make it through the night.

On Dec. 31, Speakman made it back in the pulpit.

“I wasn’t strong enough to make it through the whole service, but I did get my 2 cents in,” he said with a laugh. “I had to learn to walk all over again but here I am today. I can’t complain. God is good.”

Speakman’s still working full time at the church “just like always,” he said. And he still serves as pianist. Despite his visual impairment, he plays “just about any instrument” with ease.

After earning two master’s degrees years ago at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he taught band at the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega.

“He is always encouraging people,” said Ben Chandler, director of missions for the St. Clair Baptist Association. “He is a very positive individual. He asks me every time I see him if I have my harmonica with me. He wants to teach me to play it and I’m willing.”

Chandler calls Speakman an excellent musician, a delight to talk with and a constant motivator for his church members to excel musically and spiritually.

“I haven’t slowed down yet,” Speakman said. “I’m doing well again now by the grace of God. I’m stronger now than I’ve been in awhile.”

It’s the same with the congregation, who “suffer when one suffers” as they have with the fire, he said.

“It’s like a family, something that happens more easily in a smaller church,” Speakman said.

David Hyche of the Birmingham Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said “good investigative leads” are being pursued in the arson investigation and officials are optimistic that the case will be solved soon.

“There is good progress being made,” he said.

Speakman said good progress is being made on giving Refuge new life, too. Church members say the sanctuary is brighter now with its new paint job, he said, adding that he feels the same way about the church’s future.

“We’re pushing evangelism as much as possible to reach souls and will continue to do so even more,” Speakman said. “That’s what we’re all about.”