RANDOLPH, Ala. (ABP) — As investigators continue to search for clues to lead them to the arsonists who set fire to 10 Alabama churches in 10 days, members of one burned-out church have only forgiveness in their hearts for the culprits.
Frank Wilson, a member of Rehobeth Baptist Church in Randolph, said the fire has created new opportunities at the church.
“Since the fire, we have become closer as a church, and we have had a larger crowd too. God is a master at making the negative come out positive,” he said with a smile. “I'm not going to write them a letter of appreciation or anything, but they've done us a favor.”
Frank and his wife, Edith, have attended the century-old church for more than 43 years. They met there, got married there and eventually buried a number of family members there.
The cold wind and ashy smell in the air didn't bother the Wilsons, though. They were too focused on the future. “There was the initial shock. But since then, everyone has been upbeat,” Edith Wilson said.
Rehobeth Baptist, a member of the Bibb Baptist Association, was one of five Baptist churches to fall victim to arson in the early morning hours of Feb. 3. And when the Rehobeth church building went, so did its story – blazing across national news.
“We have received letters from … all over the place,” Pastor Duane Schliep said. “Every letter mentions that they are praying for us. And we're so thankful for that.”
Rehobeth members have received letters from government officials, Baptist associations across the state, and caring individuals whose history with the church spans decades.
On a recent Sunday, attendees sat in the church's new mobile chapel — on loan from the Alabama Baptist Convention — and counted unexpected checks.
“We're going to bounce right back,” said Norma Moore, a member since the '50s. “I looked this morning at the old church steps and I wondered how many times I've gone up and down those steps. Now I've got new steps to walk up.”
“Nothing keeps our spirit down,” Betty O'Neal added. “We've got to love [the arsonists] and pray for them. They can still pray to Christ for salvation, and they could be a great witness for him if they will come under his conviction.”
Sunday school teacher Dot McGee said she'll have the memories of the old building with her forever. She said the burned churches and the arsonists weren't the only ones affected by the fires. “A reporter came to Norvin Lovelady's funeral this week, and Dan talked to him after the funeral. He asked what a church was to us, and he asked what that uplifted feeling he had was.”
“I told him it was the Spirit, and we talked,” Dan McGee told the congregation of 50-plus while recounting the story later in the worship service. “This is just one of the seeds that's been planted through this thing.”
Schliep, as a bivocational pastor, spent days after the fire in meetings with investigators, interviews with major media, and moves toward getting things back to normal.
“It's not so bad anymore,” Schliep said. “The first two weeks were hard. But we're just getting back to it.”
Schliep recently preached a Sunday morning sermon on Nehemiah's rebuilding of the wall in Jerusalem, emphasizing how God is faithful to complete the work he starts.
Schliep gestured to land beside the fellowship hall, across from the old sanctuary. “We think we're going to rebuild here instead.”
— Grace Thornton is a correspondent for The Alabama Baptist.