Pickens churches rebound from 2006 fires

| July 13, 2010

Gone are the feelings of anger, hurt and resentment.

Instead, pastors Bob Little of Galilee Baptist Church and Walter Hawkins of Dancy Baptist Church in Pickens County are preaching forgiveness for the three men who destroyed their churches and seven others in an arson spree across West Alabama four years ago.

Little said he knew his church could rise above its grim circumstances and build something new. While he had his doubts when he arrived at his church that night in 2006 to discover it had been destroyed, he said he knew the fire was part of God’s plan. God, he said, was ready for his congregation to take a stand and try something new.

“It was a sign that God was working something out,” Little said.

The church relocated to the heart of downtown Panola and changed its focus to adapt to a more urban ministry. Members held services temporarily in a portable trailer donated by the Southern Baptist Convention until their new church was built nine months later. Little said that while the move and recovery were a challenge for its members and the community at large, the recovery was aided by support from area organizations and individuals from across the country.

“People rallied around the cause from across the nation,” Little said.

The support was a shock to Little, who had long struggled with segregation in Pickens County. But when the Pickens County Baptist Association, a ministry comprised of 36 churches, offered to help, Galilee embraced its support and joined the association as its first African-American church. The Baptist association also extended support to four other churches that had been hit by arson, including Dancy Baptist, Morning Star Missionary Baptist and Spring Valley Baptist churches.

Now, Galilee will celebrate three years since its reopening after the fire.

“It was miracle after miracle. From the carpet on the floor to the altar and the lighting, God was in it,” Little said. “The only thing left to do is pay off the building and keep people in touch with God and his plan.”

After receiving an apology from Matthew Cloyd, one of the three young men convicted in the church arson spree, Dancy’s pastor knew his church had to move on.

“We have to forgive and forget and can’t be too concerned about the past but now look to the future and focus on providing for the community,” Hawkins said.

Dancy Baptist was the sixth church destroyed in the arson spree that occurred on Feb. 3 and Feb. 7, 2006. While the church’s walls were still standing after the fire was put out, its interior was destroyed. Hawkins said the fire created a financial as well as an emotional burden for the church, since they were still paying off the mortgage and would now have to find the funds to rebuild. Hawkins turned to the gospel for wisdom.

“Father forgive them because they know not what they do,” Hawkins said. “While the immediate response was anger, we had to teach forgiveness.”

Like Galilee, Dancy also received financial support from the Pickens County Baptist Association, as well as from other organizations. Area churches donated Bibles, hymnals and choir robes. While the church was able to rebuild and add a new fellowship hall, the church still struggled to make ends meet.

This year, the church celebrated its recovery by holding a “mortgage burning” ceremony on June 27.

“The deacons all stood around and burned the deed in a canister,” Hawkins said. “We watched the paper burn and just praised the Lord. We’re small, but we’ve been here through it all.”

Now, the churches continue to support one another through phone calls, prayer and meetings. Dancy and Galilee have communicated with the Cloyd family and expect Matthew Cloyd to return to the churches after his release from prison. In addition to prison time, Cloyd was required to perform 300 hours of community service. Although it was not mandated that he perform his service at the churches he burned, Cloyd’s attorney Tommy Spina said he believes Cloyd will want to return to make amends.

“Whether he was ordered to do so or not, that is something he would want to do,” Spina said. “That has been the philosophy of his parents in getting active with these churches and trying to right the wrongs and give back. I know that he shares that feeling and would be the first one to step up to the plate and give back to the church.”

Hawkins said the church would welcome Cloyd.

“We have open arms,” he said.

Little said that in a way, the fires created something good out of a criminal act.

“We’ve seen the good that has come of it,” he said. “Boundaries have been broken and new bonds have been built. God broke barriers and allowed people to work together.”



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Category: Church Security

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