Church fires investigated

Since the beginning of the year, more than 11 Texas churches have lost their buildings to arson attacks.

Although the majority of the fires happened in East Texas, one church was torched close to home, First Baptist Temple, where many UMHB students attend.

“When it first happened, everyone was shocked,” said Martin Knox, pastor of First Baptist Temple.

The church was set ablaze Jan. 19, the main sanctuary destroyed and many of its records and history obliterated.

“Yes, it’s brick and mortar, but there’s more,” Knox said. “There was life in that building because of the worship we had there. We had funerals, weddings, baptisms and special events. Those things bring a lot of meaning to that building.”

Investigators said Jan. 29 that the fire was deliberately set, but police have not determined who the arsonist is. Investigation continues. Removal of the burned building began yesterday.

“Jan. 19 changed First Baptist Church. It changed what we do and how we do
things. Living in the unknown state isn’t easy,” Knox said. “We have a crisis, yet God is faithful and will see us through. We have already seen God’s guidance and … provisions in many ways.”

Knox said a strategy committee is working on how to move forward, but it is premature to set a timeline.

“There (are) too many unknowns that we’re depending on,” he said, adding that the church is approaching the dilemma with flexibility. “We’re honest about the situation. We don’t have the answers. But we have a God who will see us through, and I hope people see that.”

Knox said that surrounding congregations have been supportive.

“Churches are working together across denominational alliances,“ he said. “We meet for worship every Sunday at the Methodist Church. We’ve had numerous meetings at Christ Episcopal Church, and Bethel Assembly covered our expenses in the Mayborn Center the Sunday after the fire.”

Knox said church members are at different stages of grieving.

“Some are processing what we’ve lost, and some are moving on,” he said. “But they’re all very positive, and there’s a strong and healthy spirit.”

While congregations usually do not expect a crisis to happen, Knox said it is good to be prepared. The pastor said they didn’t lose all records because the church had a server, but they did lose a lot. He advises congregations to be adequately prepared for tragedies.

“Make copies of your records and, keep a copy somewhere besides your facility,” he said. “Have an inventory of what you have, like a video inventory. We had not done that, and so a lot of things we are trying to recall from memory. It’s hard to remember everything, and it’s even harder because it is
emotional. Certain things we lost remind us of certain people or events.
Make sure your insurance policy is up to date.”

Special Agent Robert Champion of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the Associate Press that stopping arson attacks is a community effort.

The Texas Department of Transportation, local law enforcements and federal agents are encouraging Texans to report any suspicious behaviors.

“The churches are the soul of the community, and we well know that,” Champion said. “We have perpetrator and a … serial artist out there causing these fires, and we want to put a stop to it.”

Investigators believe the Temple fire is unrelated to the string of 10 other East Texas fires. On Feb. 22, authorities arrested Jason Robert Bourrque, 19, and Daniel George McAlister, 21, for arson felony of Dover Baptist Church near Tyler. Though there is only one count against them, the men are
believed to have started the majority of the East Texas fires.

The first of the fire attacks was reported Jan. 1 in Athens at Faith Church.

Following it was Grace Community and Lake Athens Baptist Church set to flames Jan. 11 and 12 respectively. But on Jan. 15, the fires moved to Tyler, Texas.

Tyland Baptist Church was the first to be attacked.

“We lost everything. We have enough to fit into a small briefcase,” said Pastor David Mahfood of Tyland Baptist Church. “We’re recovering slowly, but each day is getting better. It has really brought us closer together as a church, and we’ve become much more reliant upon the leading of the Lord.”

Mahfood said the church has come to terms with what happened and has already begun the healing and restoration process.

“We’re approaching it with a crisis mentality,” he said. “It’s been a challenge, but we’ve been OK. The church will build a bigger building, and we hope it will be done by March 2011.”

Until then, the 140-member congregation is using another local Baptist church’s building to worship.

“It’s been amazing how the Lord is moving and awakening people,” pastor Mahfood said.

He believes in the end, the fi re has ironically helped the church.

“It’s having a reverse effect than what the arsonists had hoped for,” he said. “We’re going to be inconvenienced for about 14 months, and then we’re going to build a newer, bigger building to reach more people with the Gospel. In Genesis we see that what men had intended for evil, Joseph said God used for good. That’s how we’re looking at it.”

The church remains faithful as investigation continues, and the public awaits official verdicts. Tyland Baptist Church hopes in the midst of its crisis that the body of Christ is responding in a way that will make people ask questions about their faith.

Mahfood said it’s the church’s chance to live in obedience to biblical truths.

“In the (Bible), Paul talks about the peace that surpasses understanding,” Mahfood said. “This is an opportunity to show that the peace we have in response to this is not from ourselves, it’s from God. We want to share with
people that they too can have this.”

Author: Crystal Donahue

A senior from Lago Vista, Texas, Crystal enjoys hanging out at the lake with friends, eating ice-pops, having conversations over hot chocolate with marshmallows, going on random road-trips and watching Gilmore Girls with her mom. She is double majoring in mass communication/journalism and Spanish. Post graduation, Crystal plans on getting her master's and working abroad in a Spanish-speaking country. Having served in various positions on The Bells, Crystal is now the editor-in-chief. She enjoys feature and sports writing.

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