CENTREVILLE, Ala. (BP)–Five churches, including four Southern Baptist ones, were destroyed or damaged in an Alabama county apparently by arson Thursday night and Friday morning, and a fire at a sixth church in a neighboring county is being investigated.
Rehobeth Baptist Church in Randolph, Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield and Pleasant Sabine in Centreville were burned to the ground, while Antioch Baptist Church in Centreville and Old Union Baptist near Randolph were damaged. All but Pleasant Sabine are Southern Baptist, and all five are located in Bibb County.
“The sheriff’s department and the ABI [Alabama Bureau of Investigation] is treating it as arson, and obviously they’ve got some clues as to that,” Steve Patrick, director of missions for the Bibb County Baptist Association, told Baptist Press. The FBI joined the investigation Friday.
Investigators are looking closely at how the fires were started in the two churches that weren’t destroyed, said Patrick, who added it appeared “the back door was kicked in and the fire was set around the pulpit area” in the churches.
“We believe it’s somebody that has a vendetta against Christianity in general, maybe Baptist churches in particular,” said Patrick, who requested prayer for the churches as well as for the individual or individuals who started the fires.
All four SBC churches, Patrick said, run less than 100 on Sunday mornings, and all five churches that were affected are located within 10 to 15 miles of each other.
Although racism was involved in 1996 when several black churches in Alabama were burned, the fires in Bibb County involved four predominantly white churches and one predominantly black church.
Meanwhile, a sixth church, New Harmony Church (non-SBC) in neighboring Chilton County, was damaged by a fire Thursday afternoon, The Clanton Advertiser reported. That church burned just before sunset; the fires at the other churches appear to have been set sometime during the night.
The Antioch Baptist fire, Patrick said he was told, went out by itself. The Old Union Baptist fire, he said, was extinguished after a deacon who lives near the church noticed the fire.
Members of all the Bibb County churches, Patrick said, are “a little bit in shock, but they’re going to go on. They’re pretty resilient.”
Ashby Baptist tentatively is planning to meet in the building of a sister church in the area, while Rehobeth has a fellowship hall that wasn’t burned that they can use, Patrick said.
David Hand, pastor of Old Union Baptist Church, said the community remains in disbelief.
“Our congregation is pretty upset, but we are also thankful because others lost a lot more than we did,” Hand told The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.
The damage to Old Union Baptist, Hand said, essentially was caused by two separate fires. The damaged areas include the pulpit, remembrance table, the American flag and the carpet around the flag and remembrance table.
“There is a lot of sadness around the area, but we are all pulling together,” he said.
Old Union is a church of about 55 members. Hand estimated the repairs would run in the several thousands of dollars.
The pastors of the other SBC churches are Duane Schliep (Rehobeth Baptist), Jim Parker (Ashby Baptist) and Jack Allen (Antioch Baptist).
Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said the state convention is “working with the leadership of the Bibb Baptist Association to provide prayer support and damage assessment for these churches.
“As quickly as possible, we anticipate having mobile chapels available for use by the two churches whose facilities were destroyed,” he said in a statement. “Also we’re providing some appropriate financial assistance for all four Bibb Association churches whose facilities were damaged or destroyed by fire.
“It’s only because of Alabama Baptists’ generosity through the Cooperative Program and the general disaster relief fund that we’re able to offer some financial assistance. This crisis illustrates how critical it is to support the Cooperative Program, associational missions and disaster relief on an ongoing basis,” Lance said.
Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch said he is planning to visit with the pastors and community members Saturday.
“I am overwhelmed with concern and tremendously burdened for the pastors and members of the churches as well as for the communities in which they have carried out Christ-centered ministries throughout all these years,” Welch told BP.
Welch added that in the wake of the Alabama state convention already being “hit hard” by hurricane disaster relief, he is hopeful that businesses and people will give financially to the convention. The mobile chapels, he said he was told, cost approximately $65,000 each.
“This is one of the many critical times when I am so, so thankful and proud of our SBC churches that give through the Cooperative Program to help in circumstances like these,” Welch said. “We always do better together and the Cooperative Program certainly proves that in times like these.”
Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said Southern Baptists should be praying for the communities involved.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic news of the churches victimized by arson in Bibb County, Alabama, four of which were Southern Baptist,” he said. “My heart goes out to the pastors and the members of those churches, especially the churches whose buildings were burned to the ground.
“While the building is not the church, it is a gathering place for God’s people. Consequently, it is something of a sacred place and the reason many still refer to it as a sanctuary. That sense of sanctuary has been violated, and I cannot begin to imagine the sense of loss my fellow Christians are feeling. But we take comfort in the fact that there is One who can understand, sympathize and help — His name is Jesus.”
Christ, Chapman said, can “transform the heart of the one or ones responsible for these senseless acts.”
“I know all Southern Baptists join me in approaching the throne of grace, praying for those responsible that they find forgiveness, and praying that these churches will receive mercy and find grace to help in their time of need,” Chapman said.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, called the likely arson “the kind of hate crime the American people should never tolerate without speaking out indignantly.
“[W]e should expect the police to prosecute the criminals,” he said. “We must remember that Jesus said, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you, and say every kind of evil against you falsely because of Me.’
“If we are going to be Christians who live out our faith, we are going to face persecution. We will continue to practice love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the government should prosecute and punish.”
With reporting by Jennifer Rash Davis of The Alabama Baptist.