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Church arson victims close chapter, move forwardcomment (0)

June 4, 2009

By Grace Thornton

You definitely don’t find Rocky Mount Baptist Church by accident.

The small church, tucked deep in the Talladega National Forest several miles down a dirt road, doesn’t really even have any close neighbors. The nearest community is Sycamore, which is about 10 miles from Sylacauga.

But the church is there nonetheless — on purpose.

You see, two teenagers wandered down that dirt road in October 2006 and lit the sanctuary up, reducing it to ashes. Pastor Dennis Elliott doesn’t believe that was an accident. “What they intended for evil, God meant for good.”

And when members of the Coosa River Baptist Association congregation met about what to do, after briefly considering relocating or even just calling it a day at Rocky Mount Baptist, they decided to rebuild on the exact spot where the fire started. “We just didn’t feel like moving was the thing to do,” Elliott said.

As a result, the congregation has a new purpose in its community, which is scattered across the wooded area — “Hopefully a lot of people will get saved; that’s our intention,” Bennie Williamson said. Williamson has been a deacon at the church for more than 20 years, a true “Rocky Mount boy,” Elliott said. Williamson is also a contractor, which came in handy when his church got ready to rebuild. Naturally he headed up the building committee.

“Everything was done top-notch,” Elliott said of the new sanctuary and education space. “Heavy-duty everything” was used for building materials and “magnificent” stained glass windows were installed, he noted.

And May 24, the building was packed as church members, family and friends showed up to dedicate God’s new work there on Rocky Mount.

It was part of the closure that a number of churches have been working toward since 2006.

In February of that year, three college-age boys set fire to five Baptist churches in Bibb County in one night. A few days later, two of the arsonists burned four more churches in west Alabama.

The state’s rural churches were shaken and on guard, so when Elliott spotted the smoke eight months later, he knew immediately it was arson.

But what Elliott wasn’t ready for — just as the nine churches that went before his weren’t — was the way God worked through the fire and the way the community and Alabama Baptists responded.

The five Bibb County churches (four of which are members of Bibb Baptist Association) were the first to get such a response.

• Ashby Baptist Church, Brierfield, the first congregation to lose its building in the 2006 arson attacks, will also be the last to enter its new building — but it won’t be much longer, said Pastor Eddie Hughes.

“We’ve got the building up; it just needs brick. We’re doing some work on the inside,” he said.

The building sits closer to the highway in a more visible location than the previous facility, and watching it go up “has been an encouragement to our people,” said Hughes, who was called as Ashby’s pastor during the rebuilding process.

“The last three years have not been without trials, tears and heartaches but that is the past,” the church’s Web site says. “We are like the children of Israel who returned from Babylon, we have rejoiced when the foundation was laid and we continue to rejoice with every bolt, every beam, every wire, every stud and every nail.”

The congregation hopes to dedicate the building sometime around Thanksgiving. That occasion will close the last chapter of 2006’s arson sprees.

For more information, to see photos of the nearly completed building or to keep up with Ashby’s progress, visit www.ashbybaptistchurch.net.

• Rehobeth Baptist Church, Lawley, dedicated its new building two years to the day of the fire that destroyed its historic sanctuary.

“Our sanctuary was built to hold about 250 people, and it was packed that day (of the dedication service),” said church member Edith Wilson. “It’s a really nice church — God’s just really blessed us with a beautiful building.”

• Antioch Baptist Church, Centreville — along with Old Union Baptist Church, Randolph — only suffered minor damage and made repairs fairly quickly.

• Pleasant Sabine Baptist Church in Centreville, a predominantly black church and the only one of the five not affiliated with Bibb Association, was rebuilt by Carpenters for Christ volunteers.

In west Alabama, Gary Farley, director of missions for Pickens Baptist Association, said a lot of good has come from the ashes of the tragic arson attacks.

The pastors of the four churches have formed a close bond and Alabama Baptist churches have been able to build relationships with the churches, which were not affiliated with the state convention, Farley said. And in the years since the fire, Galilee Baptist Church, Panola, which is meeting in a new building, has become a member of Pickens Association.

“It’s really opened up the door for us to the black community,” Farley said. Another black church is planning to petition to join the association, and a local believer is working with the association and the state convention to plant a new black Southern Baptist church in the area.

As for the other three churches:
• Though the inside of Dancy First Baptist Church near Aliceville was a total loss, the congregation got back into its building in July 2006, thanks to volunteer teams from Baptist churches around the state that gutted and renovated the interior of the church.

• Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church near Boligee is meeting in a new building constructed by volunteers. The church has a library room open to the community that was furnished with 1,000 books collected by Pickens Association.

• Spring Valley Baptist Church near Emelle, which suffered smoke damage, got back into its building at the end of the summer of 2006.

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