Arsonists torch four neighboring churches

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During the past nine months, fire destroyed or damaged more than a dozen United Methodist church properties across the United States. Arson was the cause of at least five fires. The insured property value ranged from $10,000 to $3.3 million, but several churches lacked adequate insurance to cover full replacement costs. This is the second in a series reporting on the damage from those fires, the response to the affected congregations and what churches can do to protect themselves.

Since this series published, three church fires have been reported. On Feb. 13, the fifth arson-related fire in the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference since December struck Bethany United Methodist Church, Summerfield, N.C. That same day, First United Methodist Church, DeRidder, La., had a fire of accidental origin in the fellowship hall. The fire was contained to a small area, said the Rev. A. Wayne Evans. Frisco City United Methodist Church in the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference suffered damage due to a fire Feb. 24. An upstairs heating unit may have caused the blaze.

It is tragic when fire is deliberately set at one church. When this happens in four neighboring United Methodist churches in less than three weeks, it is incomprehensible.

However, that is what occurred between Dec. 22, 2012, and Jan. 10, 2013, in the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference. Arsonists hit four churches located within miles of one another, and as February approached, investigators continued to seek answers and the perpetrators.

The spate of fires began three days before Christmas at Gideon Grove United Methodist in Stokesdale, N.C., claiming 75 percent of the 118-year-old building. "The fire was set in a part of the building that was out of sight," said the Rev. Wanda H. Lancaster, "and by the time the flames were spotted and reported, the fire was already well under way."

Stokesdale is a small community. Once the 911 calls went out over the scanner, the majority of the congregation arrived. "We prayed and cried together as we watched the sanctuary burn,"Lancaster said.

"It was very frightening. As the firefighters entered the sanctuary, suddenly the bell fell all the way through the floor and the roof began to collapse."

However, she said the fire has not diminished the congregation's faith and spirit.

"Our plan is to rebuild.... Our congregation is evaluating the needs of our community and how can our new facility meet those ministry needs.We feel we have the opportunity to be cutting edge in local community ministry.

"We proclaim the spirit of boldness offered by Jesus Christ as we heal, pray, sing, worship, serve, play and plan together," she said.

The building was insured by a replacement-cost policy. "We are learning," Lancaster said, "that replacement cost does not include depreciation (as) determined by the insurance company.We are very blessed to have a retired insurance adjustor in our congregation who is voluntarily helping us circumnavigate this very complicated process."

The next evening, tragedy struck Mount Zion United Methodist Church, just four miles away. Someone intentionally set fire to the fellowship hall. Firefighters from at least six communities fought the blaze and saved the building.

"Some type of accelerantwas thrown through a window located on a dark alley at the rear of our fellowship hall," the Rev. Craig M. Toth said. "I was told that 30 more minutes and the whole building would probably have been lost."

The church is the people

The congregation is meeting in the sanctuary, which had minimal smoke damage. "We are holding Sunday school in every available room," he said, "which means cramped quarters, but we are making it work."

Due to extensive smoke and soot damage, a professional restoration firm is cleaning the building and contents. "Many items and furnishings cannot be cleaned," the pastor noted, "and will need to be replaced."

Once the deductible is paid, Church Mutual Insurance Company will pay the costs of building repairs and contents cleaning or replacement. Toth urged congregations to "be vigilant concerning their church facilities and (to) contact local authorities concerning anything suspicious."

He, too, was philosophical.

A UMNS Series

"Church fires: Damage, recovery, prevention"

Church fires challenge United Methodists (Part 1)
Church fire offers 'moments of deep grace' (Part 3)
How do you protect your church property? (Part 4)

"What do we do when life doesn't work out the way we hoped?" Toth wrote in his church newsletter. "This question is at the heart of many hurting people who try to figure out why God doesn't intervene to prevent bad things from happening. ... I believe God wants us to do the best we can, to see life as a 'school' in which we learn how to love God - and people - better."

Members of Bethel United Methodist Church, Oak Ridge, N.C., located just minutes from Gideon Grove and Mount Zion, became extra-watchful, stopping by the church in the evening to make sure everything was OK.

On Jan. 2, the Rev. Danny Miller smelled an accelerant and found a charred piece of paper on a concrete landing outside a metal door. Someone had poured accelerant on an outdoor doormat. Fortunately, a fire was averted.

Miller has served the 300-member church for 12 years. He knows the fire scare will only strengthen the congregation. "They can burn down buildings," he said, "but they can't burn down the church.

"These churches are not shuttered or sheltered. We are active in the community."

On Jan. 10, a fourth fire of unknown origin destroyed an outbuilding at St. Timothy United Methodist Church, Jamestown, N.C. Fire marshals and sheriffs from Rockingham and Guilford counties, along with the state bureaus of Investigation and Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, are investigating this case.

"Unfortunately, we do not have any solid leads" on the four fires, Rockingham County Fire Marshal Robert Cardwell told United Methodist News Service on Jan. 29. "We're running down leads every day. There's nothing." He is a member of Centenary United Methodist Church in Stoneville, N.C.

'There's something beyond the suffering'

A $10,000 reward, issued in January, has produced no responses. "We received one call from Crimestoppers the Saturday after Christmas," Cardwell said. He remained hopeful that fliers and posters advertising the reward would lead to an arrest or arrests.

"We're doing everything we can," he said. "The more we dig, the more frustrated we're getting."

A recently formed Church Arson Task Force includes representatives from both Rockingham and Guilford counties, and in mid-January, the FBI offered assistance.

Churches affected

Church & Location

Adams Memorial (Parksley, Va.)
Bethel (Oak Ridge, N.C.)
First (Ada, Ohio)
First (Robinson, Ill.)
Friend (Friend, Neb.)
Gideon Grove (Stokesdale, N.C.)
Hickory Plains (Hickory Plains, Ark.)
Living Waters at Centerton (Centerton, Ark.)
Mount Zion (Stokesdale, N.C.)
St. Timothy (Jamestown, N.C.)
Shiloh (Lynchburg, S.C.)
South Columbus (South Columbus, Ga.)
Taylor Chapel (Fort Wayne, Ind.)
Wiggins Memorial (Fayetteville, Ark.)





Average membership: 328
Average attendance: 111.5

While all four fires were ruled arson, Cardwell said the first three Gideon Grove, Mount Zion and Bethel were, without question, connected, even though the methodology for igniting each was different. He did not believe the St. Timothy fire was related to the others.

The four congregations will worship together in an Ash Wednesday community worship service Feb. 13 at Stokesdale United Methodist Church. The Rev. Nancy Rankin, Northern Piedmont District superintendent, is coordinating the service along with Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster. Cardwell noted that extra security would be in place at Gideon Grove, Mount Zion, Bethel and St. Timothy churches.

The service will be a call to repentance and introspection, Miller said.

"The fires have been very unsettling for the Stokesdale community," Rankin acknowledged. Lancaster commented that many people are suffering from nightmares. "The sound of sirens sets nerves on edge," she said.

Rankin added, "They are a resilient group of faithful Christians who will come out of this stronger than ever. The 154 churches in our district have already sent them money, made calls, sent cards and offered help in the cleanup. ... We have truly been the body of Christ for one another, and I think that witness has had a powerful impact on the community.

"Ash Wednesday gives us the opportunity, not only to gather a hurting community together and surround them with love, but it is also a very timely, worship service where we traditionally look at sin and death in the light of God's love and redemption shown through Jesus Christ."

"Just to know someone in our connection is supporting us," Miller said, "is to know good will triumph over evil."

"We are a place of reconciliation, love and forgiveness. We follow Jesus, who knows all about suffering and sorrow and how to triumph over that. There's something beyond the suffering. And we look forward to celebrating Easter and the Resurrection."

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor, Content Team, United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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