South Georgia church remembers their fire scare - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

South Georgia church remembers their fire scare

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February 8, 2006

Sumter County-- You've heard about that string of church arsons this week next door in Alabama, nine churches damaged or destroyed. It's a problem in Georgia too. The state Insurance and Fire Commissioner wants every church to practice safety precautions. One Georgia church was steeled by fire and grounded in faith.

Singing is part of evening bible study at St. John Baptist Church in Leslie. Members sing about a shining light, much different than the bright, burning fire that destroyed their church in 2003.

"We got a call that the church was on fire and we just left coming that way to the church and it was just shocking to us when we got there and saw it," says church officer Dennis Hamilton. Not much remained of their country church on Kaylor Road in Lee County. At the time, church members suspected arson.

"Oh, we cried. We just said this is devastating. Who would destroy the house of the Lord?," says church member Georgia Deriso.  Deriso has been a member of St. John for 50 years. Her father and grandfather both attended the church. She says church fires are suspicious this time of year.

"This is the time you hear about a lot of churches being destroyed when we start celebrating Black History," says Deriso. This month marks the third anniversary of their church fire. They know what the Alabama congregations are going through and they've put precautions into practice. "It's fire alarms and we're in the city now and the police comes and patrols and it's closer to more houses now," says Hamilton.

Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine also issues these tips for congregations. Illuminate the exterior and all entrances. Promote church watches in the neighborhood. Keep shrubbery and trees trimmed to allow easier views for patrol cars. Consider installing burglary and fire alarms.

Church members say that bigger than any fire is prayer, even for those who cause damage to churches. "We prayed for them and that God will touch their heart and let them know that they can burn the building but they can't burn the soul," says Deriso.

It's an experience that's enough to rebuild faith. "It should be. It should be. The God that we serve is able. He's got all power," says Hamilton.

They're going to continue singing about a little shining light that comes from big faith after fire.

In the past two years, Georgia's Insurance and Safety Fire Office investigated 30 church fires. About half were ruled arson and five arrests were made. So far this year, there have been two church fires in Georgia.

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