TYLER–Authorities responded to two additional church fires in East Texas on Jan. 20, bringing to nine the number of suspected arsons to churches in the region since Jan. 1.
Investigators from the National Response Team (NRT) of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), along with ATF special agents from Tyler, are working with state and local authorities in seeking clues to the string of blazes in Van Zandt, Henderson, and Smith counties. An ATF news release said the team has experience working the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and the 9/11 Pentagon attack.
James Suggs (left), deputy fire marshal in Tyler, and Pastor David Mahfood discuss the Jan. 16 burning of Tyland Baptist Church in Tyler. A $10,000 reward has been offered by federal investigators for information leading to the arrest and conviction of persons responsible for the recent church burnings. Although the burning of Tyland Baptist has not been officially ruled arson, another church in Tyler also burned on the same night. A total of nine East Texas churches have burned since Jan. 1.
According to the Associated Press, a fire at the Bethesda House of Prayer in Lindale, north of Tyler, Texas, was contained early on Jan. 20. The same morning, firefighters fought a blaze inside the chapel of the Fellowship of Prairie Creek Church in rural Smith County near Lindale, news reports said. Smith County is about 100 miles east of Dallas.
Also, federal investigators have upped their reward from $5,000 to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the fires. Anyone with information may contact the Tyler, Texas ATF office at 903-590-1475.
The weekend of Jan. 16-17, arsonists apparently struck the Tyland Baptist Church and the First Church of Christ, Scientist, both in Tyler. Tyland was the third Southern Baptist church to burn in the rash of fires.
On Jan. 12, Lake Athens Baptist Church in Athens, about 65 miles southeast of Dallas, was one of two churches in that town heavily damaged by what investigators believe were arson fires set in the early morning hours. The week before that, another church near Athens was apparently torched.
In Van Zandt County, located between Athens and Tyler, arson is also suspected in two fires set in early January, one at the Little Hope Baptist Church in Canton on New Year’s Day and another at nearby Martin’s Mill.
Authorities first suspected burglary as a motive at the Athens churches, said Athens Assistant Police Chief Rodney Williams, but the investigation is ongoing.
Tyland Baptist Church Pastor David E. Mahfood told the Southern Baptist TEXAN: “I was sick when I heard about it. I was up here with several church members, watching it burn. I never thought it would happen to us. I am frustrated, angry, sad, but hopeful, very hopeful, that this will turn out for good for our church.
“Thankfully no one was injured, but we lost records, all of my files, journals, books. I had just put my diploma from Southwestern on the wall five days ago after graduating in December. We had worship service the next day at Asbury Methodist Church, right across the street. We’ve had dozens of offers to hold church at their facilities, but we have just made an agreement with Willowbrook Baptist Church to meet there.”
In the fire’s aftermath, Mahfood preached from 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, which states, “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” and Psalm 136, which has the recurring refrain of “His mercy endures forever.” They also sang “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and “It is Well with My Soul,” he said.
“This has taught us that all you need is God’s Word, all this is good and helpful,” he said, pointing to the burned remains of the church, but all we need is God and His Word. But still, we have some charter members here at the church, memories of those who have been married, baptized, funeral services held here, a lot of memories in this building.”
Tyland Baptist Church began in the early 1960s and has 140 members on the roll, and about 120 attend service.
The Tyler religious community offered condolences and support as congregational leaders met to discuss security and other issues.
“We’ve always had good security at Marvin,” John Robbins, pastor of Marvin United Methodist Church in Tyler, whose church just recently completed a remodeling project, told the Tyler Morning Telegraph. “But we’ve hired more security already to keep (the church building) safe 24 hours until this perpetrator is caught.”
Rabbi Neal Katz of Tyler’s Congregation Beth El told the paper the Jewish community has been “a target” for centuries.
“That gives us certain empathy for others being victimized,” Katz said. “When people are violated in one place, that affects all of us.”
John Green, pastor of Lake Athens Baptist Church in Athens, said that despite an estimated $500,000 damage to its auditorium in the Jan. 12 fire. “Our hearts are full and our spirits are encouraged. We believe God is going to bring something good out of this.”
An ATF news release said the NRT team has experience working the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, and 9/11 Pentagon attack.