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Number of suspected church arsons reaches 9
Jerry Pierce, Baptist Press
January 22, 2010
4 MIN READ TIME

Number of suspected church arsons reaches 9

Number of suspected church arsons reaches 9
Jerry Pierce, Baptist Press
January 22, 2010

TYLER, Texas — Early

Wednesday saw two additional church fires in East Texas, bringing to nine the

number of suspected arsons to churches in the region since Jan. 1.

Federal investigators are working with state and local authorities in seeking

clues to the string of blazes in Smith, Van Zandt and Henderson counties.

According to the Associated Press, a fire at the Bethesda House of Prayer in

Lindale, north of Tyler, Texas, was contained Wednesday morning. Meanwhile,

firefighters fought a blaze inside the chapel of the Fellowship of Prairie

Creek Church in rural Smith County near Lindale, news reports said. Smith

County is about 100 miles east of Dallas.

Federal investigators on Wednesday upped their reward from $5,000 to $10,000

for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons

responsible for the fires. Anyone with information may contact the Tyler, Texas

ATF office at (903) 590-1475.

During the weekend of Jan. 16-17 arsonists apparently struck the Tyland Baptist

Church and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, both in Tyler. Tyland was the

third Southern Baptist church to burn in the rash of fires.

On Jan. 12, Lake Athens Baptist Church in Athens, about 65 miles southeast of

Dallas, was one of two churches in that town heavily damaged by what

investigators believe were arson fires set in the early morning hours. The week

before that, another church near Athens was apparently torched.

In Van Zandt County, located between Athens and Tyler, arson is also suspected

in two fires set in early January, one at the Little Hope Baptist Church in

Canton on New Year’s Day.

Authorities in the three affected counties are being aided in their

investigation by the Texas state fire marshal’s office and the Federal Bureau

of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Authorities first suspected burglary as a motive at the Athens churches, said

Athens Assistant Police Chief Rodney Williams, but the investigation is

ongoing.

Tyland Baptist Church pastor David E. Mahfood told the Southern Baptist TEXAN: “I

was sick when I heard about it. I was up here with several church members,

watching it burn. I never thought it would happen to us. I am frustrated,

angry, sad, but hopeful, very hopeful, that this will turn out for good for our

church.

“Thankfully no one was injured, but we lost records, all of my files, journals,

books. I had just put my diploma from Southwestern (Baptist Theological

Seminary) on the wall five days ago after graduating in December. We had

worship service the next day at Asbury Methodist Church, right across the

street. We’ve had dozens of offers to hold church at their facilities, but we

have just made an agreement with Willowbrook Baptist Church to meet there.”

For his first sermon after the fire Mahfood preached from 2 Corinthians 4:8-9,

which states: “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are

perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but

not destroyed,” and Psalm 136, which has the recurring refrain of “His mercy

endures forever.” They also sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “It is

Well with My Soul.”

“This has taught us that all you need is God’s Word. All of this is good and

helpful,” he said, pointing to the burned remains of the church, “but all we

need is God and His Word. But still, we have some charter members here at the

church, memories of those who have been married, baptized, funeral services

held here, a lot of memories in this building.”

Tyland Baptist Church began in the early 1960s and has 140 members on the roll

with an average attendance of about 120.

“I can’t say enough about the people here,” Mahfood added. “We were just about

to hold an evangelism training time on the 24th of January, and we still are,

because we are going to keep doing what we’ve always been doing, telling people

of God’s love.”

John Green, pastor of Lake Athens Baptist Church in Athens, told the Southern

Baptist TEXAN that despite an estimated $500,000 damage to its auditorium in

the Jan. 12 fire, “Our hearts are full and our spirits are encouraged. We

believe God is going to bring something good out of this.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist TEXAN,

newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.)