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Vietnamese Baptist Church burns amid Philadelphia unrest

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify the status of the investigation and the conditions near the church Tuesday night (Oct. 27).

PHILADELPHIA (BP) – The building of Vietnam Baptist Church in Philadelphia was burned Tuesday night (Oct. 27) during the second night of unrest in the city after the police shooting of a Black man Monday (Oct. 26). The fire is under investigation by the Philadelphia fire marshal’s office.

The city’s police department told Baptist Press the fire is not being investigated as arson. An employee at the AutoZone auto parts store across the street from the church confirmed with Baptist Press Friday (Oct. 30) that the store had been looted Tuesday night. It is unknown if the fire was related to any protests.

Pastor Philip Pham told Baptist Press he received a call Tuesday night from a church member whose friend had seen the flames and seven fire trucks surrounding the church. He arrived a few minutes later and said he was told by a bystander at the auto parts store that the bystander had seen a group of people throw something onto the roof of the church shortly before the fire started. The man also told Pham he had called 911.

“I have no idea why they attacked our church,” Pham said. “They burned it from the roof. They threw flammable chemicals on the roof and [flames] burned through the roof” and down through the rest of the building. He said the facility is a “total loss.”

Of primary concern to Pham were three hard drives. Since before purchasing the building in 2005, Vietnam Baptist Church has served as something of a community center each weekday, providing help with immigration paperwork, taxes and even marriage counseling.

More than 15 years’ worth of information about hundreds of clients is on hard drives kept at the church. Pham said when he got the call about the fire, he immediately began praying that the hard drives would be spared.

“I prayed right away: ‘God, please protect the hard drives,'” Pham recalled. “Other stuff can be recovered. But those files will never be recovered.”

Fire destroyed almost all of the church’s technological equipment. Miraculously, just two feet below the melted modem in this photo, three hard drives remained untouched by the flames. Photo from Pastor Philip Pham

When firefighters finally let him in after the blaze was extinguished, Pham said he was amazed.

“I saw the routers and modems and things surrounding the hard drives all burned, melted,” he said. “But that piece of hard drive, no harm. No harm at all. Just two feet above that, all melted. … That is amazing how God knows our needs and answers our prayers. He is an almighty God. He granted our prayer.”

Pham said the church is still meeting mostly online due to strict pandemic-related restrictions in the city. Wednesday, he was calling around to nearby schools to find a place to host the church’s leadership team as they broadcast the livestream this Sunday.

“Remember us in your prayer in time of need like this,” he urged Southern Baptists. “The church members here need encouragement. The majority of us have very strong faith in Christ, but a minority, a few new believers, they need their faith to grow. Pray for their faith to take deep root in the love of God so they can be steadfast in Him. Not focus on the problem, but focus on Jesus. Please remember us in your prayers.”

SBC Executive Committee President and CEO Ronnie Floyd said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of the burning.

“We are praying for Pastor Pham as he seeks to rebuild and to minister to the community,” Floyd said. “We must pray that our churches who are caught in the middle of senseless violence can be a light for the Gospel in their cities.”

Peter Yanes, executive director of Asian American relations with the SBC Executive Committee spoke with Pham shortly after the fire and prayed over the phone with church members as they gathered at the charred remains of their building.

Yanes said he was “compelled to reach out right away and find out more of the heartbreaking incident” after seeing videos Pham posted to social media Tuesday night.

One of three hard drives containing irreplaceable information that was spared by fire. Photo from Pastor Philip Pham

“You can sense the heartfelt frustration and concern,” Yanes said of church members’ reaction to the fire. “I have encouraged [Pham] and prayed with his family that God has a higher purpose of them rising to the occasion with a testimony of hope in Christ Jesus.”

The turmoil in Philadelphia, sparked by the shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. by police, has at times seen violence and looting and led to a clash between demonstrators and officers at police headquarters Tuesday night, The Associated Press reported. It is not known if Vietnam Baptist Church is the only incident of alleged arson.

According to AP, police, who were sent to Wallace’s home on Monday after his brother called 911, said Wallace ignored multiple demands to drop a knife he was holding and that when he advanced toward the officers, they opened fire. Wallace’s family maintains they had placed the emergency call because of Wallace’s mental state and had requested medical assistance and an ambulance.

The city has requested help from the National Guard to curb the unrest in the lead-up to Tuesday’s national election, AP reported.

In light of the violence in his city, Pham encouraged youth pastors to stress to young people the words of James 1:20: “The anger of man does not bring about the righteousness of God.”

“You cannot use your anger and be justified,” he said. “I would like to bring this message to all the young people.”

Pham said some of his church members are afraid because of the violence and looting, but he is encouraging them to keep an eternal perspective.

“So many things we don’t know, but God knows, so just trust God,” he said he told them. “Just do right. Don’t copy [those who practice violence], but do what the Bible says and what He wants us to do. Love them and pray for them that they may know Christ, that the Holy Spirit may convict them and they may seek God.”