Fires Spark Alabama Congregations' Resolve

A month ago arson badly damaged 10 Baptist churches in Alabama. Steve Chiotakis of member station WBHM reports, life goes on in Bibb County — where half the fires occurred — but many residents say they have a renewed commitment.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

It's been a month since someone began setting fires to Baptist churches in Alabama; ten have burned. Hundreds of local and federal authorities have been on the case combing through more than a thousand tips that have come in. In rural Bibb County, Alabama, where over half of the fires occurred, residents say the crimes have brought a new resolve to churchgoers.

From member station WBHM in Birmingham, Steve Chiotakis reports.

STEVE CHIOTAKIS reporting:

There's a slight grimace in the face of 29-year-old Jason Bates, a member of the recently burned Ashby Baptist Church. Bates is trying to fish cumbersome 500 gate wires through PVC conduits to ultimately get the lights on inside his church's interim home.

The gray double-wides sit on a parking lot about a hundred feet away from the charred ruined of Bates' church.

Mr. JASON BATES (Member, Ashby Baptist Church): We've got two separate trailers here, and building a temporary service for them. Run the power to the both of them. We got a 400-amp service here. And it's a lot of grunt work right now.

CHIOTAKIS: His church was one of three in the county that burned completely to the ground. Sanctuary, Sunday school, church hall, all of it gone. But Bates says the soul of the church remains.

Mr. BATES: All the members of the church makes up the church, not the building itself. It's just another place for the church to get together.

CHIOTAKIS: A few miles down the road at Old Union Baptist, which dates back to 1860s, the damage wasn't nearly as bad. But the steely resolve of its members, like Deacon Hillman Moses, is the same. Moses says the burnings don't make much sense.

Mr. HILLMAN MOSES (Deacon, Old Union Baptist Church): Somebody needs to know the Lord is all I know. I don't have no hard feelings against them or anything. I think it was just somebody out having a good time burning churches. We ain't done nothing to make nobody mad.

CHIOTAKIS: Moses arrived just in time to put the fire out before it spread. The only things damaged in his church were a hard pine podium and table at the pulpit, and an American flag in the corner. Now, Moses says, people are watching, his church, every church.

Mr. MOSES: Oh, yeah. We're keeping an eye out.

CHIOTAKIS: And it's that camaraderie, that shared spirit among neighbors, fellow worshipper or not, that's prevailing in Bibb County. It certainly is the topic of lunchtime conversation at the Twix and Tween Restaurant in Centerville, the county seat. Along with pork ribs or an all you can eat buffet comes the salt and peppering of disbelief and astonishment.

Christy Nichols and her husband Tim say through all the emotion comes a united front.

Ms. CHRISTY NICHOLS: People have been keeping a closer eye on their neighbors' churches, not only on their own but their neighbors' churches, as far as keeping things like this from happening again, hopefully.

Mr. TIM NICHOLS: You know, with as many people watching and looking and waiting now, they're going to end up striking one of the churches and some church members are going to be there waiting on 'em. And hopefully it'll be soon.

CHIOTAKIS: And if not church members waiting, then law enforcement. More than 100 local, state and federal agents are scouring the area in Bibb County and the other counties where church fires have happened. Tips, they say, are coming in all the time.

Mr. JIM CAVANAUGH (Special Agent in Charge, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives): We've got over a thousand names in our database just in this case.

CHIOTAKIS: Jim Cavanaugh is Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He says federal agents continue to chip away at hundreds of leads that may take the case in one direction or another.

Mr. CAVANAUGH: It's like a wall of curtains, you know? And each time you find something out you move one back. And behind it there's another one and you move that one back. And then there's another one and you move that one back. So you keep going and going through. But eventually, you know, in a big case you're going to get to the end.

CHIOTAKIS: Authorities think they can find the answers if they can find what eyewitnesses describe as a dark colored SUV, and two white men in their 20s or 30s seen leaving some of the fires. They do know it's been a while since the last church fire, and people in Bibb County say they're doing everything they can to stop it from happening again.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Chiotakis in Birmingham.

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