By Justin Reedy
Local, state and federal arson investigators are looking into the causes of a fire Thursday night that gutted a church in Clayton County.
The fire started around 11 p.m. Thursday at Evangel Temple Bible Church on Rex Road near Morrow, destroying most of the church's interior and causing some damage to the building's outside walls.
Federal law requires that church fires be investigated for arson to determine if the incident was a hate crime, according to Deputy Chief Jeff Hood of the Clayton County Fire Department. Consequently, CCFD arson investigators on Friday joined colleagues from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and State Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine in researching the cause of the fire to determine if it was arson. Anyone with information about the fire is urged to call the state Arson Hotline at 1-800-282-5804.
Officials haven't ruled out arson as the fire's cause, but preliminary reports don't show any signs that the fire was set intentionally, Hood said.
Clayton County firefighters were the first on the scene of the two-alarm fire, and saw fire coming out of the back of the building. Most of the exterior structure of the building was saved, Hood said, but one county firefighter suffered second-degree burns while fighting the blaze. He was treated at Southern Regional Medical Center in Riverdale and later released.
Churchgoers at Evangel Temple, as well as those who a part of True Believers Mission, a visiting ministry, were shocked to find their place of worship nearly destroyed by fire.
"I was stunned, shocked just in disbelief," said Henry County resident Kathie Mote, who has attended Evangel Temple for about seven years. "This was home away from home."
"It's devastating," said Jonesboro resident Addie Britt, the wife of Pastor Anthony Britt of True Believers Mission.
Though investigators are required to look into the possibility that the fire could be a hate crime targeting the mostly minority congregation of the True Believers Mission, Britt doesn't think that's likely.
"As far as we know, we haven't had any threats or anything," Britt said. "So we kind of ruled that out."
Pastor James Richter Sr. of Evangel Temple thinks the fact that their church is so multicultural would also rule out such a hate crime.
"I don't see how it could be," Richter Sr. said.
Though dismayed by the fire's destruction, members of both congregations were upbeat that the two churches, as well as the Evangel Temple Christian Academy, will continue on.
"God has always promised that out of cursings come blessings," said James Richter Jr., the associate pastor at Evangel Temple. "The ministry will go on. The ministry is going to thrive."
That could mean rebuilding at the same site, Richter Sr. said, but until then the churches might have to operate out of another area church building.
"We've had several churches offer assistance," the elder Richter said. "It's been great to be part of this community."
The strength of a church is in its people, church leaders and members said, and in this case, that means these two ministries will live on.
"We'll survive," said Mote, as she stood near the soot-blackened church walls with a look of dismay. "The church is still here, even if the building is gone."