Torched East Texas churches undergo modern-day resurrection

| April 4, 2010

Easter sunrise services are nothing new for Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point. But this morning, unlike other years, members have chosen to gather on a concrete slab.

It's where their sanctuary used to be, before arson claimed it on Feb. 4.

Along with meeting right where rebuilding will begin soon, the church decided to have youth lead the service.

"That seemed appropriate," said the Rev. Darrell Coats, interim pastor. "We're looking ahead."

Rising from the ashes is no figure of speech for Russell Memorial and nine other East Texas churches that early this year had buildings set on fire in what authorities say was a spree – motive unknown – by two young men from the area.

Russell Memorial's losses alone exceed $1 million including contents, among them a Steinway grand piano. The losses from all the churches total millions more.

But as any ecologist will testify, fire can be a renewing event, and at Easter every one of the 10 congregations is not only intact but counting blessings and making plans.

"God has brought a lot of good out of this tragedy," Coats said. "I'm not saying God caused it. I'm saying God can bring good out of it, just like God brought resurrection out of crucifixion."

Melted stained glass

The fires began early on Jan. 1, and it would take seven weeks before a massive interagency law enforcement effort yielded the arrests of Jason Bourque, 20, and Daniel McAllister, 22. Each is being held at the Smith County Jail in lieu of $10 million bail.

The 10 churches included rural, hidden-away Little Hope Baptist near Canton but also First Church of Christ, Scientist in downtown Tyler and Russell Memorial, a block from the Wills Point fire station.

Baptist churches – there are at least 85 in Smith County alone – got the worst of it. But there was no denominational pattern. Nor were the fires racial.

"I just think we were part of the fun they wanted to have," said the Rev. Brandon Owens, pastor of Clear Spring Missionary Baptist near Tyler, the lone black church hit.

Clear Spring burned to the ground, and that was essentially the case for Tyland Baptist of Tyler. There, nearly all the stained glass melted. The charred ends of pews now lean like ancient tombstones, and curling pages of hymnals and choir books emerge from piles of soot and ash.

"People were married in that church," said the Rev. David Mahfood, Tyland's pastor, standing below a singed live oak in the churchyard. "Their children were married. There were baptisms."

But as Mahfood and others note wonderingly, not a single church member or firefighter – no one – was seriously hurt in any of the 10 fires.

And as soon as one church's building loss made news, other churches began to reach out.

"Even as the church was burning, we had phone calls coming in, offers of places to come," said Mahfood.

Ties that bind

First Church of Christ, Scientist is now holding services in the chapel of First Presbyterian of Tyler. Dover Baptist, near Tyler, has been taken in by neighbor Union Chapel United Methodist.

Little Hope Baptist, whose members had watched the Christian feature film Fireproof the night before their church burned, meets for now at a community center. But checks came in from a range of churches, including Marvin United Methodist in Tyler.

"I told them I'd have to tone down on my Methodist jokes," joked the Rev. Bill Parr, Little Hope's 82-year-old pastor.

Along with a new birth of ecumenicalism, the fires prompted a general neighborliness, with the affected churches reporting untold numbers of letters and cards from individuals, many with checks enclosed.

The Rev. Shane Barnes lost his beloved 800-book library in the fire at his church, Grace Community of Athens. Some who heard about it set up an account at The Scroll, a Christian bookstore in Tyler.

"They either gave monetarily or purchased books he lost, and slowly his library is being replaced," said Debbie Barnes, the pastor's wife.

Tyland Baptist had a close relationship with across-the-street Orr Elementary School, where 92 percent of the children are economically disadvantaged. The church had served as the school's emergency evacuation site. Members also conducted a coat drive for the kids, tutored them in reading and baked treats for teachers.

After Tyland burned, the children held a coin drive, collecting $1,280 in used water-cooler bottles. They gave the money to the church with a banner that reads "Tyland Baptist Church We Miss You! Acts 17:24. Your Friends at Orr Elementary."

"Some kids put in dollars, but mostly it was pennies," said Erin Brunton, an Orr counselor. "The church has been very good to the school. It was an opportunity to turn that back around and serve them."

New calling

Little Hope Baptist is already building back, with roofers shingling the new education building late last week. Some other churches have yet to clear away what's left of their burned structures, and won't until the insurance check arrives.

But nearly all the churches report excitement at the prospect of having new, up-to-code structures.

"Thank God we're able to rebuild and even do a little add-on," said Owens of Clear Spring Missionary Baptist.

One church that hasn't decided about rebuilding is Grace Community of Athens. It was in a suburban area but found temporary quarters in a downtown warehouse, near a homeless shelter.

Grace was hardly moribund before. On learning the church was burning, Shane Barnes sent a text message to members saying "Church on fire," and some thought he meant with evangelistic fervor.

But since being downtown, Grace is seeing bigger crowds and feeling new purpose as it ministers to the homeless and others.

"The church has chosen not to rebuild right away," said Debbie Barnes. "We felt God wants us downtown and making an impact."

The 10 churches seem united in concern for Bourque and McAllister, who haven't given interviews. Since prosecutors and defense lawyers aren't talking either, the young men's story remains a matter of considerable speculation.

"They don't need me piling on," said the Rev. Leon Wallace, pastor of Faith Church of Athens, which burned on Jan. 1. "I pray that they find God. … There's nothing you can't come back from."

That message – an Easter message – was certain to be sounded in sermon and song at services today by the East Texas churches.

Few planned a direct reference to the fires. All seemed focused on accommodating the largest crowd of the year.

"On Easter, we'll have 120 to 150 people," said Parr of Little Hope Baptist. "We'll bring in chairs and hope we can handle it.

"We'll go just like we were First Baptist Dallas."

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Category: Church Security