Emergency workers responded to a two-alarm fire at Providence Baptist Church in Vale, N.C. around 2 a.m. Monday. According to local news sources, at least eight fire departments from three counties responded to the call.
When fire crews arrived at the church just southwest of Hickory, they found flames and smoke coming from the building. Investigators believe the fire started in the basement boiler room. Smoke damage extended to the worship facilities, located above the basement.
George Hildebran Fire & Rescue photo
No injuries were reported, but investigators called the incident suspicious. Vandalism behind the church included apparent hate speech against the church near the area where the fire is believed to have started.
Photos on Twitter and Facebook showed the message “anti-gay hate group” spray-painted on the sidewalk behind the church and on the back of the building.
Ernest Richards, the church’s pastor, told the Biblical Recorder vandals might have confused the church with Providence Road Baptist Church in nearby Maiden. In 2012 that church’s pastor, Charles Worley, spoke harshly against homosexuality in a sermon. The church made national news and became a target of the LGBTQ community.
Speaking about the Providence congregation that he pastors, Richards said, “Those are great people, loving people and compassionate. There’s no hate speech in that crowd. I just believe that whoever did this was confused.
“I’m totally opposed to sin of any kind. But, we love [people], regardless of what they’ve done, we’re still going to have that compassion for people. We welcome everyone here.”
Richards said after the 2012 incident at the church in Maiden, “It was a mess for several weeks, and some were confusing our name with that other church. We had to change our phone number because of all the ugly calls we received. We’re assuming there is mistaken identity [again].”
Hours before the fire, church members dedicated more than 200 shoeboxes they had assembled for the Operation Christmas Child ministry. Richards said firefighters worked through the smoke to remove the boxes, but they were all damaged by soot and smoke. The church plans to repair or replace all of the shoeboxes before they are delivered to the Samaritan’s Purse headquarters in nearby Boone.
Monday evening, church members and neighbors in the community met to pray, vowing to be faithful to the church’s mission in the community.
Providence Baptist Church is affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Area news reported today (Nov. 14) that the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office ruled the fire as arson. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, deputies and the fire marshal are continuing the investigation.