Congregants Keep Close Watch On Church

| February 10, 2010

For three hours, several times a week, a Ford pickup blocks much of the main entryway to the New Harmony Baptist Church parking lot.

Sitting parallel to Farm-to-Market Road 724, the truck faces south as oncoming traffic climbs over the hill on the winding western Smith County road.

Inside the cab, two friends, New Harmony residents and Baptist church members Richard Jester and Wayne Rogers keep a constant eye out for anything out of the ordinary, passing the time with conversation.

It's a necessary routine, they say, in these days of uncertainty.

"It's not something we want to do, but it's something we're going to do," Jester said.

For the past three weeks, pairs of New Harmony Baptist volunteers have paced and patrolled the church grounds in the hope that vigilant observation will spare their place of worship from the same fate that has befallen 10 East Texas churches: destruction by fire that, in most cases, authorities have deemed arson.

Tuesday evening, from 4 to 7 p.m., Jester and Rogers kept watch despite sub-40-degree temperatures. A small price to pay, they say, to protect the spiritual home of the 350 or so worshippers every Sunday morning.

And though they can't be sure, their surveillance efforts already may have prevented a nightmarish series of events.

Sitting in the dark and pouring rain Thursday night, shortly after 7 p.m., Jester and Rogers watched as a vehicle traveling southbound on FM 724 cut across a section of New Harmony Baptist's front lawn and stopped in a small parking lot at the church.

At the sight of the suspicious vehicle, Jester said he cranked up the engine of his truck and turned on the headlights. At that point, he said, the vehicle quickly pulled out of the parking lot and sped off southward.

Perhaps it can't be called paranoia, but fear is certainly a factor behind New Harmony Baptist's recent overnight stakeouts.

"It's really scary what's going on," Pastor Robbie Caldwell said. "Whoever's doing this needs to be stopped."

Caldwell admits the anxiety level of New Harmony Baptist members reached new heights this week after learning of the two church fires that occurred Monday, both of them within five miles of his rural worship center.

"I was telling someone earlier today, 'First Baptist Church (of) Temple was too close,'" Caldwell said Tuesday, recalling a church fire that occurred last month in Central Texas.

And while his church is equipped with an alarm system — a security measure that may have spooked away intruders in three church break-ins in the past week — Caldwell believes the round-the-clock, two-person patrols were responsible for pulling New Harmony through Monday night unscathed.

"I know this guy had to go by our church, and probably if we hadn't been watching, we might have been the next church," he said, alluding to the person responsible for the string of arsons.

Although federal investigators have not confirmed that the two Monday night church fires were cases of arson, law enforcement agents have said both churches showed signs of forced entry.

For that reason, Caldwell said his church will continue its recent practice of locking every door at all hours, even during church services, in order to keep out unwanted guests.

And until authorities are able to arrest the person or people responsible for the church fires, New Harmony Baptist members will continue to observe the property with disposable cameras and cell phones in tow, ready to snap a photo of unusual activity before calling 911.

"I just know we're going to do our due diligence," Caldwell said. "And God willing, this guy or these people will be caught, and this will pass one day."

 

http://www.tylerpaper.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20100210/NEWS01/2100333

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