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Fire at Ragland church believed to be arson, officials saycomment (0)

May 3, 2007

By Sondra Washington

Barely two weeks after three former college students were sentenced to prison for burning churches across central Alabama, Refuge Baptist Church, Ragland, in St. Clair Baptist Association was broken into and burned during the early morning hours of April 24.

According to Ragan Ingram, assistant commissioner of the Alabama Department of Insurance, "Evidence at the scene leads the state fire [marshal’s] office to believe that this is a case of burglary (breaking and entering) and arson."

Pastor Ray Speakman said the culprits used the church’s Easter costumes to start the fire, which caused extensive damage to the fellowship hall and smoke damage to the sanctuary.

"They took those costumes and used them like rags, and they set a bench on fire outside the fellowship hall," he said.

Thankfully a passer-by noticed the blaze while traveling home from work, and the Wattsville Fire Department extinguished the flames before they could spread throughout the facility.

"The first fireman on the scene, Lt. Adam Cropp, found that the front wall of the fellowship hall was burning," said Wayne Bradshaw, Wattsville fire chief and a member of Mineral Springs Baptist Church, Pell City.

"He had it under control in a few minutes."

Soon after, first responders realized the fire was no accident.

"When we saw that the door was kicked in and another door was open, it was very suspicious," Bradshaw said. "We got with the (St. Clair County) sheriff’s deputies right away and they started an investigation."

Ingram credited the local fire and sheriff’s departments with "maintaining the integrity of the scene, which helps with determining cause and the collection of evidence."

"All of this brings up bad memories, and I know our staff will be working as diligently as they can to help solve this case," he said. "We are obviously disappointed when anything like this happens, and we want to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible to bring closure to the congregation involved."

Speakman is grateful that the fire was started in the fellowship hall and not in another part of the building.

"The sanctuary was full of rich pine taken from a (nearby) schoolhouse in the 1940s," he said. "If they had started the fire in a different area, we probably wouldn’t have a church."

Speakman added that Refuge Baptist’s remote location probably helped make it a target for vandals.

"We had a break-in in January, and they kicked in the fellowship hall door," he said. "I think it’s pretty much a sign of our times where people’s morals are such that they don’t have any respect for God’s house or anybody else. … I pity them because they are so sin-sick that they don’t seem to know right from wrong."

Speakman said although the congregation, which averages between 70 and 100 in attendance on Sundays, was upset by the fire, it plans to continue church services and ministry in the community.

"It’s not going to stop us," he added. "God’s people at Refuge have a mind to work, so we are going to work."

Just one day after the fire, church members met at a local funeral home for their Wednesday night service. At press time, the congregation was planning to meet outside the sanctuary for the April 29 church service.

When Ben Chandler, director of missions for St. Clair Baptist Association, traveled to the church after the fire to meet and pray with members, he was impressed by their response to questions from the news media.

"Most have responded properly by saying, ‘The building is not the church; the church will go on and build back stronger,’" Chandler said. "That’s what is important for people to understand from it. We use the wrong terminology when we say ‘church fire.’ The church wasn’t burned; the building was burned."

Speakman and his congregation agree. He said this incident has given them a new determination to serve the Lord.

"When we serve God, that’s the only attitude we can have," Speakman said. "What’s impossible with man is possible with God. We request everybody’s continuous prayer. We want to do all that God will allow us to do.

"That takes strength and God’s the only one to give you that strength."

At press time, no arrests had been made.

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