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‘God has a purpose behind the pain,’ pastor says of fires that destroyed church building, parsonage

A fire destroyed the building of Providence Baptist Church near Williamstown, Mo., Jan. 4. The cause of the fire is being investigated by state and federal authorities. Photo by Dan Steinbeck

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mo. (BP) –At 5:30 on Thursday morning, Jan. 4, Pastor James Leezer of Williamstown’s Providence Baptist Church got a call with bad news no pastor wants to hear: “The church and the parsonage are on fire.”

Leezer was studying Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount at the moment he received the call, but after he heard the news he turned to God in prayer. After 20 minutes in prayer, he then called the deacons.

Fire leveled the Providence Baptist Church and attached fellowship hall Thursday morning, Jan. 4. The church parsonage, located a quarter mile away, was also destroyed. Authorities are investigating the fires to determine the cause and whether they constitute a hate crime. Photo Courtesy of Canton R-V Fire Department

Firefighters were already on scene when Leezer got the word.

A quarter-mile lane separates the parsonage and the church building, which included an attached fellowship hall. Firefighters, from Canton and Monticello stations were dispatched at 5:07 a.m. and could see both structures fully engulfed miles before they arrived. The departments set up attacks on both structures.

The firefighters called the Western Lewis County Fire District in LaBelle for mutual aid. Then they called additional firefighters from LaGrange and Ewing to assist with a tanker water shuttle to the church, some two miles east of Williamstown.

Firefighters were at both scenes until about 2:30 p.m. Thursday. There were no injuries.

The parsonage was vacant, as the Leezers live elsewhere.

“Not all people go to church, but when the church is hit, we all feel it,” Leezer said. “Providence is the last church in Williamstown.”

“It’s hard to understand why someone would do this,” he added. “That (church) building held a lot of memories. And my wife and I started our marriage in the parsonage.”

Pastor James Leezer preached a message from John 16 on Jan. 7. The church gathered in the local fire station. Photo from Facebook

The state Fire Marshall’s office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATFE) have started an investigation regarding the cause of the fire and to determine whether a hate crime was involved.

Whatever they determine, Leezer refuses to respond with hate.

“I’ve forgiven the one who did this and pray they come to know Christ,” he said. “We’ve forgiven them, and others should too. Whatever was meant to destroy us will just build us up. While this is a devastating, shocking thing, I’m anticipating what God will do next and what He’ll accomplish.”

Nothing was salvaged from either fire.

That night, after the fires, more than 50 people gathered in the Williamstown Fire Station, including fire crews and community members, as well as church members. They gathered to pray and pour out their hearts to God.

The church also held its first Sunday service of 2024 in the Williamstown fire station on Jan. 7. At least 60 people were present – exceeding the usual attendance of 30-40.

An electronic piano and hymnals have been donated to the church to use in worship at the fire station.

“The people of the church are strong and have good hearts, but pray for them,” Leezer said. “We are hurting. I’m grateful for the people I get to go through this with.”

The Kansas City Field Division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), in conjunction with the Missouri Division of Fire Safety and the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office, announced Jan. 9 is offering up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the blaze.

Information can be given by calling 888-ATF-TIPS (283-8477) or emailing [email protected] and anonymously through the “Reportit” app or texting ATFKC to 62975 and following the prompts.

Leezer doesn’t know exactly what next steps the church should take. “But I don’t think now is for taking time off,” he added. “There is a time to mourn, but we need to plan the next step. God has a purpose behind the pain. It will strengthen the body of Christ, and I think the people will find purpose through this, and (it will) prepare us more for the Second Coming.”

The church is waiting to see what insurance will cover. An account for Providence Baptist Church has been opened at the Bank of Monticello, with branches in Lewis and Clark counties.

BP reporter Scott Barkley contributed to this report.