Churches Up in Smoke - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Churches Up in Smoke

July 30, 2003

Albany - The church, for many people, is more sacred than even the home. The church family is as close as blood relatives. The church is where lessons are learned, special memories are made, and strength is found. So when something terrible happens to the church, the loss can be devastating.

It was a day of thanksgivings and for breaking holy ground. The members of St. John's Baptist Church are building a new sanctuary. "God works in mysterious ways," said lifelong church member Bettye Deriso.

Deriso leaned on her belief in God when her small country church, on the Lee/Sumter County line, burned to the ground in February. "Seeing the smoke and the flames made me reflect on the memories made at that church. What we knew of St. John's was gone, and it was devastating."

And, a suspicious truck seen fleeing from the scene made church members fear the fire was no accident. "I first thought how could someone do that to God's house," said Deriso. "That person must not have a relationship with Christ."

In just a few hours, flames destroyed the 120 year-old church. "The remoteness of the area, the suspicious vehicle, and the black congregation made us think that this could be an arson," said Lee County Fire Chief Joe Pollock. Five months later, Pollock says the cause of the blaze remains a mystery. "We don't know what caused this fire. The blaze burned so fast that it destroyed all possible evidence of foul play."

On a different county line in 2001, another century old church met the same fate. St. Mary's Baptist Church members watched in horror as flames ravaged their sanctuary on Percy Hatcher Road in Dougherty County.

"The church members were devastated," said Albany Assistant Fire Chief James Carswell. "Their parents and grandparents had attended this church. It was like losing a member of that family." But this time, investigators had enough evidence to rule the fire an arson.

Many people value the church even more than their own home. So when the church is destroy, the loss is overwhelming. "Most of us our families. We're interwoven, so we're like one big family," said Deriso.

Since January, fire destroyed 14 Georgia churches. Of those, seven were ruled arsons. So why are places of worship targets for crime? "Motives for starting a church arson range from insurance fraud, to hate crimes, to disputes between members of the church family," said Carswell.

Carswell also draws another conclusion. What do St. Mary's and St. John's have in common? The answer - both our located basically in the middle of no where. "People have moved into town leaving these churches out in remote places. So fires can be started without someone seeing the arsonist," said Carswell.

The arsonist left behind a powerful marker at St. Mary's - KKK. Some church fires are racial hate crimes, and many targets are Black Churches. But, Chief Carswell thinks arsonists were trying to throw off investigators.

"I thought it was strange that the KKK was on the back of the church because usually those people write their mark on the front where everyone can see because they're proud of their crime."

Maybe St. Mary's was burned for insurance money, or as revenge. And, maybe the motives were the same at St. John's. Or maybe that one was just an accident. Either way, church members are forced to move on and rebuild.

"Our old church may have burned down, but our church spirit is still alive," said St, John's Pastor Calvin James. And, Bettye Deriso says the church fire has brought her congregation closer together, strengthening her faith that God does works in mysterious ways.

  • You can help guard your church from arson and other crimes-

Make sure the outside of the building is well lit. And, keep shrubbery and trees trimmed so criminals have fewer places to hide. Install secure locks on all doors and windows, and make sure your fire alarm is working correctly at all times. Ask you local police to routinely patrol your church. And, promote a neighborhood crime watch to report suspicious activity.

  • Internet Resources-

Church Burnings Study (Mississippi State University)

ATF Online - National Church Arson Task Force  

 

posted at 2:45PM by kathryn.murchison@walb.com

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