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
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
“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.)