Arson suspected in church fires

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Arson suspected in church fires

Dec. 13, 2007  News media contact: Tita Parham*
800-282-8011  Orlando {0774}

An e-Review Feature
By Erik J. Alsgaard**

Arson is suspected in three fires that broke out at Cleveland United Methodist Church in Punta Gorda Dec. 7 and 9.

Law enforcement officials are searching for the individuals they believe set the fires, a couple who lived next door to the church. Total damages were reportedly at less than $5,000.

Church members are now left with the task of cleaning up, but thankful the fires did not injure anyone or cause more damage. They are also wondering why the suspects, who church members had been helping with rent, food and other expenses for the past four months, would allegedly set the fires.

The first fire was reported just before 10 p.m. Dec. 7, according to the Rev. Dan Baker, pastor of the church for the past three years. The suspected individuals entered the church’s fellowship hall through an unlocked kitchen door and set fire to a trashcan in the fellowship hall and a box of tissues in the women’s restroom.

Another fire was set in a back room of the sanctuary, a separate building from the fellowship hall, after a window had been pried open and a flaming object thrown in.

Firefighters were able to put out the fires with minimal damage, according to local news reports.

After spending most of the day Dec. 8 cleaning up burned carpet and smoke and water damage, the church was struck again early the next morning. Baker said at about 5:30 a.m. the fire department returned to the church to put out another, larger fire set in a back room of the sanctuary. The perpetrators had pulled out the window to gain access.

“We were blessed by God’s protection,” said Baker, noting the damage from the incidents could have been much worse. “The Sunday morning fire could have been very bad because we had pulled out a damaged ceiling panel from the earlier fire, which left the attic and roof exposed. It was only because an air conditioning air return duct was over the door where the fire was started, blocking the fire’s progress, that stopped what could have been a disaster.”

The church sustained major damage in Hurricane Charley and within the last 12 months had finished an $800,000 restoration, Baker said. The congregation was not able to worship in the sanctuary Dec. 9 and used the fellowship hall instead.

“I pray for the church and the church building every day,” Baker said.  “I claim the promises of Psalm 91 that God will and does protect us.”

The church, Baker said, has a strong outreach ministry to the community, helping several families in the neighborhood with payments for rent, food and other necessities. The suspects in the fires had been recipients of the ministry for the past four months.

Baker said the church decided to discontinue providing the assistance because “we had not seen any progress in this family that we would like to see.” The family was informed of that decision the Wednesday before the fires occurred.

Baker said the church will continue its outreach ministry, despite the incidents.

“We won’t stop helping people,” he said. “We’re going to continue to do the right thing and help people. We never give anyone cash. Instead, we write checks that are made payable to the companies in question.”

As a congregation seeking to be good stewards of God’s money, Baker said he will now be even more diligent in doing background checks on potential beneficiaries of the church’s benevolence. The suspects, according to police, had previous run-ins with the law.

While grateful the fires were not worse, Baker says the situation is still troubling.

“Yes, God protected us, but people’s lives are still broken and in pain,” he said. “Whoever did this could receive 30 years in prison if they are convicted. So, yes, I’ll forgive whoever did this. And yes, we will pray for them as a church. But the law is still the law, and we will press charges.”


This article relates to Property and Casualty.

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Alsgaard is director of communications for the Florida Conference.

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