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Dover Baptist Church following fire (Photo: KRIV-TV, Houston, Texas)
Residents of eastern Texas are on edge, worried in the wake of what may be a serial arsonist on the loose with an appetite for burning churches to the ground.
At various intervals since New Year’s Day, 11 churches in the state have gone up in flames, and authorities have ruled nearly all of them arson. A $25,000 reward is offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the fire starter.
“The disturbing part is it changes everyone’s lifestyle,” said Neal Franklin, fire chief in Tyler, where two churches have been destroyed. “It changes our attitude.”
Franklin told the Dallas Morning News that when the second fire broke out in Tyler, “it suddenly hit everyone, ‘Oh, my goodness, this could continue every day potentially.’ … That’s the tension.”
So far, the saga has continued nearly every day, just as Franklin feared.
The nightmare began New Year’s Day, when Faith Church in Athens, Texas, was torched. Eleven days later, on Jan. 12, the arsonist struck again, this time lighting up both Lake Athens Baptist Church and Grace Community Church of Athens.
The culprit or culprits then began spreading the fires around, hitting churches in a variety of towns, including another double blaze yesterday that reduced the rural Clear Springs Missionary Baptist church to ashes on the same night Dover Baptist Church was lit aflame.
The Dallas Morning News reports that during the first double arson, firefighters were forced to leave the scene of the first church to attend to the second.
“Our people were like, ‘What’s going on here?'” said Brian Brandt, a pastor at Grace Community Church in Athens. “It was because they got another call – another church was burning three to five miles away.”
And even as the smoke clears, it has left a cloud lingering over Texas churchgoers.
“It was just devastating. We didn’t think it would happen to our church,” Albert Valadez, a trustee at the torched Dover Baptist Church told KLTV-TV in Tyler. “Used a lot of methods to try to secure the doors … we had security cameras on there.”
“Disbelief and shock,” said Carl Samples, pastor at Dover Baptist. “I can’t comprehend how anyone would do the Lord’s house this way.”
Jeff Palmer, who was married in the church, told KLTV he had been afraid for the church, since the first arson made headlines over a month ago.
“When I’ve driven home, I’ve looked in the parking lot before I go to my house, or I look down the little farm road that goes off to the left,” Palmer said. “I’ve been looking to make sure if I see any trucks or vehicles, that I’d maybe spot them and be able to call somebody.”
But Dover Baptist was broken into and lit on fire yesterday despite Palmer’s efforts, the 11th church to burn since the start of the year. Authorities are also looking into a few church fires that struck Texas late last year to see if there are any connections.
According to the Dallas Morning News, the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms lists 90 houses of worship set on fire last year nationwide, with an average loss of about $250,000 per fire.
No deaths or injuries have yet been reported in the eastern Texas string of fires.
Churches burned since Jan. 1 in the area about 50 miles southeast of Dallas include:
- Little Hope Baptist Church in Canton, which, ironically, burned after a New Year’s Eve showing of the film “Fireproof.” It is one of the few fires in the string that is not believed to be linked to arson
- Faith Church, Athens, Jan. 1
- Grace Community Church of Athens, Jan. 12
- Lake Athens Baptist Church, Jan. 12
- Tyland Baptist Church, Tyler, Jan. 16
- First Church of Christ Scientist, Tyler, Jan. 17
- Prairie Creek Fellowship, Lindale, Jan. 20
- Russell Memorial United Methodist Church, Wills Point, Feb. 4
- Dover Baptist Church, Carroll, Feb. 8
- Clear Springs Missionary Baptist Church, Lindale, Feb. 8.
In central Texas, closer to Austin, a fire that gutted the historic sanctuary of First Baptist Church of Temple on Jan. 19 has also been determined to be arson, but authorities do not suspect it was the work of the same fire starter.
Anyone with information about the fires is encouraged to call 1-888-ATF-FIRE, or 1-888-283-3473. A Facebook page has also been established with resources and updates on the fires.
“The building is burned but the church lives on in our hearts,” said Emily Becker, a member of the Christian Science church that burned in Tyler.
“We want them to be brought to justice,” Becker told the Dallas Morning News. “But we’re trying to forgive them as taught in the Lord’s Prayer.”