Fire destroys Baptist church in Talladega County; state Baptists work to send helpcomment (0)
October 19, 2006
By Grace Thornton
As Pastor Dennis Elliott neared the end of a familiar six-mile stretch of dirt road snaking through the Talladega National Forest Oct. 8, his heart sank.
He saw smoke rising from the woods. And he knew exactly what it was.
Arson. Ever since nine Baptist churches in the state went up in flames in February — with several more church fire incidents sprinkled throughout the following months — arson is everyone’s first conclusion when a church goes up in flames.
At least Elliott thinks so — but he said he still never expected his church to fall victim to it.
“Sylacauga’s a little town,” Elliott said, and Sycamore — the nearest community to his Rocky Mount Baptist Church — is about 10 miles from Sylacauga. The church is “in a beautiful mountain area, and we just didn’t think it would happen to us — but it did.”
When he and other church members began to arrive at the pile of smoldering rubble where their sanctuary and Sunday School annex once stood, Elliott said there was no question in anyone’s mind that the atrocity was intentional.
“The church was well-built and well-maintained, and the fire happened on a calm night. We couldn’t believe that it could have started by itself. We suspected arson from the beginning,” he said.
And Elliott feels they were right in that assumption. On Oct. 10 and 11, two 18-year-old Sylacauga men were arrested on arson charges in connection with the fire, their story seemingly not very different from that of the three young men arrested for the February fires — a drinking and thrill-seeking late-night lark.
It took officials just over a month to make arrests for the February arsons, but the process “went fast” this time around because of the “seamless” response between federal, state and county agencies — a relationship forged from the last fires, according to David Hyche of the Birmingham Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“If there is a positive as a result of the fires, that’s it. And they will be prosecuted to the maximum. It’s just so senseless — the church members kept the church (Rocky Mount Baptist) absolutely beautiful and it’s totally destroyed,” Hyche said.
Following an Oct. 12 arraignment, the two suspects — Randy Lee Jones Jr. and Preston DeWayne Lindenthaler — wait to plead their case at a trial that could land them two to 20 years in prison. The three men charged with the February fires — Matthew Lee Cloyd, Benjamin Nathan Moseley and Russell Lee DeBusk Jr. — look to a Jan. 16, 2007, trial, a recent change from their original Nov. 13 court date. A long road of prison time could await them, too.
But two things are for sure — a long road of recovery awaits Rocky Mount and a long line of state Baptists is already mobilizing to help.
“Once again, one of our churches has been impacted by damages from a fire. At this time, Alabama Baptists should pray for the Rocky Mount church family as they plan for the future,” said Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM). “We at the State Board of Missions are in communication with the pastor, Bro. Dennis Elliott, about their situation.”
The SBOM is currently working with the possibility of providing a mobile chapel for the Coosa River Baptist Association church to use as children’s and nursery space. The church met the Sunday of the fire under the trees just past the ashes, and members plan to hold future services in their year-old family life center, the one building that escaped the flames with minor damage Elliott estimates at $10,000. The church has approximately $100,000 in insurance coverage on that building and $265,000 on the two leveled buildings, he said.
“We’re generally all right. We have a place to meet, and people across the state have been very concerned,” Elliott said.
And even though the church’s one remaining building was robbed three days after the fire, he said church members are keeping their heads up.
“We’re thankful for what we have, and it was providential that we built that family life center last year — church members had been saving for 20 years to build it,” Elliott said.
The church is good with long commitment, he added, noting that some members have been a part of the church for more than 70 years.
“We’re not in a rush, we’re not in a hurry. We’re well-insured and we’ll go on,” Elliott said. “We’re in total shock, speechless and in a state of unbelief, but we are not worried about the material part of it.”
The church, which runs anywhere from 20 to 50 in attendance on Sundays, has a good grasp on the things that matter, like the six people baptized there last year.
But they also have a broken heart for those whom they haven’t reached yet — like the two young men charged with burning their church buildings.
“It’s a wake-up call for all the churches to reach these young people,” Elliott said. “These young men have ruined their lives — it’s a pitiful case.”
In the Talladega County Courthouse in Talladega on the day of the arraignment, he watched silently as the sheriff brought the two men toward him in chains. One of them lives just blocks from Elliott near the Sylacauga Post Office, the other just past him near the outskirts of town.
“I looked at them and thought, ‘I have a grandchild this age, and here these boys are in deep, deep trouble,’” Elliott said.
The sheriff stopped the two briefly in front of Elliott, and he looked them both in the eyes.
“We care about you — the Lord has not forsaken you. We’ll be here to help you if we can,” Elliott told them.
They didn’t respond, Elliott recounted. “But I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What if somebody, some church, had just reached them?’”