BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–A spate of arson attacks have affected five churches in east Alabama — attacks that follow a string of nine church-burning incidents nearly two years ago in which three college-age men were arrested.
Two 21-year-old men, both professed Satanists, were arrested Jan. 6 in connection with blazes at Woodland Baptist Church in Phenix City, Greater Peace and Goodwill AME Church in Crawford and Greater Bethelpore Baptist Church in Smiths Station in early January.
Still on the loose is the person who set fire to Providence Baptist Church in rural Chilton County Jan. 12, destroying the church’s fellowship hall, education space and church office. Another church in the Chilton Baptist Association, Maple Springs Baptist Church in Clanton, burned in the early hours of Dec. 29.
Geoffrey Tyler Parquette, 21, and James Scott Clark, 21, were apprehended after a cross stolen from one of the first three churches was found in Parquette’s grandmother’s home, according to The Associated Press.
In a classroom at Woodland Baptist, “Teach children to worship Satan!!” was scrawled with red paint on the wall, along with an upside-down pentagram. The church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Amid the attacks, Concord Baptist Church in Salem, also an SBC church, was vandalized.
Parquette and Clark entered not guilty pleas Jan. 7, a day after being arrested, according to AP. Between them, they face a slew of arson, burglary and criminal mischief charges.
“Everyone has been so great to us since the fire,” Bobby Watford, pastor of Woodland Baptist, told The Alabama Baptist. “There’s been a great outpouring from Alabama Baptists and others, and we are grateful. We’re doing really great. We’re trying to get everything together now, but everyone is optimistic.”
For now, the congregation, which averages 80–100 on Sunday mornings, is meeting in the local Woodland Christian School.
While the church’s insurance company is debating whether to pay toward repairs or rebuilding, the church is hoping for a new start in a new building.
“The smoke went into the blocks of that old building, and so much was lost that the people would rather just tear it down and start over,” Watford said. “Some of the older members [were] saddened because some of them had been there as long as the church had been there, but we’re looking forward to what the Lord is going to do.”
Roland Davis, pastor of Maple Springs Baptist, said Jan. 11 that the church was still awaiting word from the state fire marshal on the cause. But after the Providence Baptist fire, The Birmingham News reported that a spokesman for the fire marshal said the cause was “unknown, but suspicious,” pending the results of tests being performed on evidence. Both fires happened just after 3 a.m.
“We’re hoping we’ll hear something shortly,” Davis said.
But the congregation is moving forward while it waits, he said. A building committee was to be chosen Jan. 13 so that the church can begin to move toward rebuilding. For now, Maple Springs Baptist’s congregation is meeting in the old sanctuary of nearby Samaria Baptist Church.
“We’ve just had so much support, and that has made the difference,” Davis said. “We really appreciate that.”
Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, visited the church and presented Davis with a check from state disaster relief funds.
“I believe that good will come from this bad situation, and I am pleased that Alabama Baptists have cooperated together to make such disaster relief funds possible for quick response,” Lance said.
As for the Providence Baptist fire, officials are working to chase down the culprits.
“The officials say they have gotten some really good fingerprints, footprints and tire prints,” said pastor Allen Foster, noting that his church is thankful that the sanctuary — located just feet from the charred remains of its neighboring buildings — suffered some vandalism but little else.
The arsonists attempted to set fire to the sanctuary on the downstairs level, but the fire burned half a poster of the books of the Bible and went out, Foster said.
“We’re just thankful no one was hurt and that we have a place to go home to,” Foster told The Alabama Baptist, speaking of the church’s relatively undamaged sanctuary.
The Providence congregation, emotional but in good spirits, met for services Jan. 13 a couple of miles down the road at Camp Dawson, a facility lent to them by Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Birmingham.
“We hope if we can get the burned part cleaned up and get the water fixed up to the sanctuary we can meet in our own facilities next week,” Foster said.
In addition to the check Lance presented Maple Springs Baptist, the State Board of Missions provided Providence Baptist and Woodland Baptist with checks from the disaster relief fund and offered mobile chapels if needed.
“We’ve got lots of decisions to make, but we’re going to make them as a family,” Pastor Davis said to the congregation during the service Jan. 13. “We’re going to get through this thing. It’s bigger than you and I but not bigger than the God we serve. It felt like a death, didn’t it? But it wasn’t. The church is still alive.”
Adapted from reports by The Alabama Baptist newsjournal, online at www.thealabamabaptist.org. Further coverage will appear in the Jan. 17 issue of The Alabama Baptist.