Lumberton church fire ruled arson

| December 13, 2009

LUMBERTON – KFDM News has learned federal investigators and the Lumberton Fire Marshal have ruled arson in a fire that heavily damaged Fletcher Emanuel Church Alive, and the pastor told KFDM it's "totally shocking" to learn Wednesday's fire was deliberately set and may have been done to cover up a burglary.

Lumberton Police Chief Danny Sullins told KFDM News the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and Lumberton Fire Marshal Jim Philp issued the ruling Friday afternoon. Investigators have turned the building back over to the church.

According to Sullins, it appears a burglary occurred in the office area of the church where investigators say Wednesday morning's fire was concentrated.

The fire destroyed a number of records in the church offices above the sanctuary, caused a floor to collapse, and resulted in smoke damage to the sanctuary and other parts of the building.

No one was hurt.

A maintenance worker driving up to the church, 395 Fletcher Road in Lumberton, reported the fire shortly before 8 a.m. Wednesday. Chief Sullins told KFDM News when he arrived he saw smoke coming from the office area above the sanctuary.

The congregation was founded in 1910. The building that burned was constructed in 1980.

"First of all, the fire was just totally shocking to me," Pastor Mark Wilding told KFDM news Friday night. "I thought it was an electrical problem or something like that. But to find out somebody broke in, it's really just a total shock is all I can say on that. I do hope they get whoever did it because our building, I would say there's a lot of damage."

Wilding said investigators asked if he knew anyone who'd have reason to set the fire and he told them 'no.'

"We've not had any threats," Wilding told KFDM. "We've had a few cases of young kids, teenagers, since we have a large youth ministry and bus in some children from troubled backgrounds. They see our video games, they might break in and take one of those, but that happened only once."

The fire has prompted the pastor to move Sunday's services to the site of the old East Texas Christian School on Highway 69. Breakfast begins Sunday at 9 a.m. and services begin at 10 a.m.

Wilding told KFDM the move will be permanent and was planned to take place in about six months. The arson will speed up the process.

"We already moved to our other property," (the site of the old East Texas Christian School) said Wilding. "We were planning on going there anyway. There's a church in this area that was looking at our building but nothing was official. We were going to get a lot of things done and take some time. Now we're forced down there. We have no intentions now, we don't see the possibility of returning to that building. Our new name will be SouthPoint Church."

Wilding says the name is appropriate because the church will be located where Highways 69 and 96 converge at the southern edge of Lumberton.

The pastor says despite what happened to the building on Fletcher Road, he isn't mad at the arsonist or arsonists.

"If I could speak to those who did this, I'm not even really angry," Wilding told KFDM News. "It's sad that someone would do something like that, and upsetting, but apparently anyone who would do that has some problems. If someone had been hurt or it had been our only building, it would have been devastating. I do hope they catch the person but I don't hold any bitterness."

A statement on the church's website reads "Please pray for our congregation at this difficult time. Our desire is to be in the center of God's will and serve the Lumberton community."

Another posting reads "Behold, I make all things new. " Revelation 21:5."

The arson and burglary remain under investigation by the Lumberton Police Department, Lumberton Fire Department and ATF.

If you have information about the church arson, call EasTex Crime Stoppers at 724-TIPS, Lumberton Police at 755-3400 or the ATF.

Authorities ruled arson in other Hardin County church Fire. A fire destroyed First Baptist Church in Kountze in April, 2008. No arrests have been made in that arson investigation. The sanctuary was rebuilt and the church held its first service there on November 22.

Authorities haven't said there is any link between the two church fires.

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Category: Church Security

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