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Chilton Association church suffers arson attack; sanctuary savedcomment (0)

January 24, 2008

By Grace Thornton

A day after a blaze claimed the fellowship hall, education space and church office of Providence Baptist Church in rural Chilton County, faint smoke was still swirling up from Pastor Allen Foster’s sermon notes.

And not just that Sunday’s — 13 years’ worth of sermon notes.

“One of the deacons was picking on me, saying, ‘Maybe now we’ll get some good sermons,’” he joked.

But the church members know their pastor’s pain is real, just as theirs is following the harsh sting of an arson attack Jan. 12.

During the Jan. 13 morning service held a couple of miles down the road at Camp Dawson, a facility owned by Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, Birmingham, they encircled him in tearful prayers, rallied around him with amens, affirmed that the church wasn’t what the arsonist burned.

“It felt like a death, didn’t it? But it wasn’t. The church is still alive,” Foster told the congregation.

Then he read from a soot-covered sticky note he had salvaged from the ashes of his office: “No matter what — believe God, serve God, abide in God and thank God.”

One thing to be thankful for was the church’s sanctuary, Foster noted. Though located just feet from the charred remains of the other buildings, it suffered some vandalism but little else.

The arsonist attempted to set fire to the sanctuary on the downstairs level but the fire burned half a poster of the books of the Bible and went out, Foster said. “It was obviously arson but the officials say they have gotten some really good fingerprints, footprints and tire prints.”

Providence Baptist was the second Chilton Baptist Association church to burn in the last few weeks. Its sister congregation Maple Springs Baptist Church, Clanton, burned Dec. 29.

Both fires happened just after 3 a.m.

“We still have the cause of that fire classified as undetermined, but it is also classified as suspicious,” said State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk, who noted that the same investigative team was working both cases.

“We can’t say that the two are connected, but we can’t say that they are not either,” he said. “We are certainly not going to overlook that possibility.”

Providence’s fire, he said, was classified as both arson and burglary.

“It was horrifying and disappointing,” said Doug Holcomb, a member of Providence for the last 57 years, who got to his church about an hour after the blaze started. “It’s the only church I’ve ever known, and there were so many memories there.”

But he thought for a moment, and then he smiled broadly. “We can make more memories.”

As portions of Providence’s building continued to smolder Jan. 13, about 120 church members sang “Victory in Jesus” at the Sunday service.

Grateful for help

“We were grateful God could use us to assist them with a meeting place that day,” said Gary Fenton, senior pastor of Dawson Memorial Baptist. “It was a great privilege for us to be able to see the campground used in that way for the glory of God.”

Dawson’s Boy Scout troop had been staying there over the weekend but cut its trip short and even prepared the buildings for Providence’s use when it heard of the fire.

“The congregation as a whole was glad to help, and we continue to pray that God will not only restore their buildings but also restore them at this painful time,” Fenton said.

Foster said his church was grateful for the support and the use of Dawson’s facility as a place to regroup.

At press time, he hoped the congregation would be meeting back in its sanctuary Jan. 20.

“We hope if we can get the burned part cleaned up and get the water fixed up to the sanctuary, we can meet in our own facilities next week,” Foster said.

During his sermon that morning, he encouraged church members to focus on the future.

“We’ve got a church to build back — we haven’t got time to worry about these guys (responsible for the fire). I hope they are punished so it doesn’t happen again but I forgive them. I just want the opportunity to sit across the table and share Jesus with them one day.”

For now, Foster and the rest of Providence are just thankful for God’s provision through state Baptists and their community “loving on” them.

Chilton Association’s disaster relief volunteers are readying to help with cleanup at the church.

And during the Jan. 13 service, Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, offered the use of a mobile chapel if needed and presented a check from state Baptists’ disaster relief fund.

“Alabama Baptists are going to help you build back bigger and stronger,” Lance told the congregation. “What others meant for evil, God can customize into something good. You’re going to find a revival will come from this.”

Foster agreed. “There has been a revival spirit at Providence Baptist Church … and it doesn’t need to stop now.”

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