Ring of déjà vu from 7 church blazes

| February 15, 2010

The Rev. James Nelson knows the devil's work when he sees it. And as federal, state and local investigators this week probed the ashes of seven East Texas churches burned by arsonists, the graying pastor of Greenville's New Lighthouse of Prayer knelt and prayed.

“These are terrible things,” he said of the fires reported since Jan. 1 at white and black churches in Athens, Tyler, Lindale and Wills Point. “I believe the enemy, the devil, is behind it. A man in his right mind wouldn't set a church house on fire. … Prayer is the answer to this problem.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms late last week said no arrests have been made in the fires. But on Friday, agents released drawings of three young men who are wanted for questioning.

The East Texas arsons have left Nelson, 58, shaken by a strange sense of déjà vu.

In June 1996, the Lighthouse, founded by his father, was wrecked by a deliberately set fire — the first of more than 40 suspicious blazes that roared through the Hunt County city of 25,000 before year's end. The Greenville fires, many of which hit minority neighborhoods, coincided with an alarming rash of church arsons across the American South.

Almost 300 houses of worship — about 40 percent of them African-American — were targeted nationally in 1996. Authorities arrested 199 people — Anglo, black and Hispanic.

In Texas, the state fire marshal's office helped local fire departments investigate 16 church arsons, although the number of such cases handled solely on the local level is unknown. The National Coalition for Burned Churches counted more than 40 suspicious church fires throughout Texas that year.
Clinton took action

The fires, evidence to many that violent racism was erupting anew in the South, galvanized the nation.

Then-President Bill Clinton decried the arsons, calling for the creation of a national task force to lead the investigations. Congress passed a law doubling the possible penalty for racially motivated church arsons to 20 years in prison. The National Council of Churches raised more than $4 million to help fire-ravaged churches rebuild.

Back in Greenville, a town with a racially troubled past, Lighthouse parishioners prayed as they never prayed before.

Clinton's task force later reported that the cases of church arsons, bombings and attempted bombings declined to 209 in 1997, 165 in 1998 and 140 in 1999. Cases dropped to 82 for the first eight months of 2000, and the task force eventually disbanded.

In the earlier The New Lighthouse of Prayer case, Greenville police arrested two Anglo men and a Hispanic but later released them. The case finally was closed with the conviction in federal court of Mark Anthony Young, 18, a mentally retarded African-American man who confessed, then denied, that he had burned the Lighthouse and a second local church.

He was sentenced to time already served and three years' supervision.

“It was devastating,” Nelson said of the arson. “Man, it hurt terribly — like somebody setting your shoe on fire. The church is God's house. … The pain and suffering; the agony. God. God. God. It was tough, it was rough, but God saw us through it.”
Eighth fire in Temple

In the latest church fires, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms this week theorized the culprit might be a single arsonist or group of arsonists. The agency also raised the reward for information leading to arrest and conviction to $25,000.

ATF spokesman Tom Crowley said three fires occurred in Athens, two in Tyler and one each in Lindale, a community near Tyler, and Wills Point in Van Zandt County.

Authorities, he said, also are investigating a church arson in the Central Texas city of Temple but are uncertain whether the case is linked to the East Texas fires.

Nelson, now at the helm of his rebuilt church, said he prays for the East Texas arsonist.

“I pray for God to forgive him,” Nelson said. “I pray that he gets saved before time runs out on him.”

And, for the person who set the churches on fire, the Greenville preacher had this message:

“Stop. Stop. Stop. God wants you to stop. God wants you to come to yourself and realize what you're doing. God loves you. God wants to save you, and fill you with the Holy Ghost.”



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Category: Church Security

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