Churches on guard for arson

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 10, 2006

Like many rural communities, Dixons Mills Baptist Church is the cultural and social centerpiece of the tiny south Marengo County community.

Church member Betty Knight is at there just about whenever the doors are open.

Knight – whose great-great-grandfather’s three mills gave the south Marengo County community its name – was immediately concerned about the historic rural church after hearing Tuesday that arsonists had set fire to four churches just a Sunday drive away in Boligee, Gainesville, Aliceville and Panola.

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There’s a lot of history in the 99-year-old church, she said, including a Bible that “is as old as the building.”

“With them burning churches, I just called up at the Bethel Association to ask what we ought to do about it,” Knight said.

Bobby Hopper, director of missions for the Bethel Association, which represents all the Southern Baptist Convention churches in the county, identified with her fear. For churches that are far from the beaten path – like Boligee’s Morningstar Missionary Baptist, which was reduced to ashes Tuesday – it’s probably not a bad idea to protect items that are irreplaceable, he told Knight.

“I’ve been telling them to go about their business like normal,” Hopper said. “But if you have anything too precious or old to replace, you better do it. Because you never know.”

The Rev. Mitchell Congress, who pastors a rural church in Faunsdale, said his congregation has only taken one measure to protect Mt. Horeb Baptist.

“All you can do is just pray they don’t strike your church,” he said. “And we’re praying to the Lord that there will be an unveiling, to show who it is that’s doing this.”

Linden Fire Chief James Creel said “there has definitely been an increase in patrols,” though he didn’t want to get specific for fear of tipping law enforcement’s hand to the arsonists. Authorities continued to search for two white males in a dark-colored sport-utility vehicle Thursday.

However, Greene County Sheriff Johnny Isaac said a deputy drove by Morningstar Baptist just a few hours before it went up in flames.

A few rural pastors, Creel said, have contacted him seeking advice on protecting their churches.

“They were having someone around the church periodically through the day and night,” Creel said.

After speaking with investigators Tuesday, Gov. Bob Riley said he believes the fires were “isolated instances,” and not part of any “grand conspiracy.”

Though nine churches – all Baptist – have now been torched in Pickens, Sumter, Greene and Bibb counties, Eric Kehn, a spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms told The Associated Press there are no “signs that this has anything to do with race, or any particular sect or religion.”

Davis to visit scenes of arson

U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, will tour the sites of all four Black Belt blazes Friday. The four churches torched Tuesday morning are all within Davis’ Seventh District of Alabama and, spokesman Corey Ealons said, “the congressman wants to be briefed by the investigators, talk to all the pastors and see the scenes (of the fires).”

Ealons said Davis’ office has been in regular contact with investigators from the FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Davis will be briefed more thoroughly on the investigation’s progress, Ealons said, when he arrives at Morningstar Missionary Baptist in Boligee at 12:30 p.m. today.

He will spend around a half-hour at each site, moving from Boligee to Spring Valley Missionary Baptist and Galilee Baptist in Sumter County and finishing the day at Dancy First Baptist in Pickens County.

Ealons added Davis has been consulting various agencies to see what avenues exist for the federal government to help the congregations affected by the arson spree. A Birmingham-based representative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will accompany Davis “to provide information about government resources available to these churches to aid in their reconstruction,” Ealons said.