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Congregation receives support after arson fire

By Linda Looney-Bond

lbond@news-daily.com

The pastor of a Morrow church destroyed in what authorities believe was an arson fire said his congregation will be meeting, temporarily, at a local funeral home.

"For the next 10 to 12 weeks we'll be at Ford-Stewart Funeral Home on Highway 138 [in Jonesboro]," said Mike Mullins, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Morrow.

"They're kind enough to open up their facilities for us, and let us use their chapel for our services," said Mullins.

On Nov. 15, Mullins' congregation was burned out of its church, located at 7130 Mt. Zion Circle.

"It was discovered during the investigation that there were traces of an accelerant found," said Glenn Allen, director of media relations for Georgia Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John Oxendine. "All accidental causes have been eliminated."

Allen said investigators could not release information about the type of accelerant that was used, or exactly how the fire was started at the church.

"We really are looking for help from the public. Commissioner Oxendine considers this person to be extremely dangerous -- someone that would set a house of worship on fire," Allen said.

Oxendine's office is offering a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons involved in the alleged arson, Allen said.

"All I can do is pray for the person," Mullins said. "We just need to pray for whoever did it, that they'll realize they're doing wrong, and they get themselves some help."

The Calvary Baptist Church fellowship hall, located next door to the church building, received some exterior damage from the fire, and some smoke damage on the interior, but was not destroyed.

Mullins said the congregation will meet at Ford-Stewart Funeral Home, located at 2047 Ga. Highway 138 in Jonesboro, until the fellowship hall can be refurbished.

"We're just glad we have the facilities that we can do it," said Darren Ford, a funeral director for Ford-Stewart Funeral Home. "They're a nice group of folks."

Ford said the funeral home opened its doors to the congregation "just to help them out in their time of need."

"We've served some of the members of their church, and thought it would be a good return, for their families using us [the funeral home]," he said.

Mullins said his church will hold Sunday services at the funeral home at 10:45 a.m., and 5:30 p.m. He said Bible study will be held on Wednesdays at 6 p.m.

Mullins said he is also thankful that a local church opened its doors to his congregation last Sunday. The church members were welcomed into the services of New Testament Baptist Church, located at 2352 Old Rex Morrow Road, in Ellenwood.

"We shared Thanksgiving services with them, and also had a Thanksgiving meal with them on Sunday," Mullins said. "It worked out wonderful, and we really had a great time.

"It was very giving, very Christian-like of them. They just accepted us right into their church as brothers and sisters in Christ," Mullins added.

"They're, of course, having a bad time right now and we just want to be a lighthouse to the community, and open our doors to anybody that needs a helping hand if possible. That's what the Lord would have us to do," said New Testament Interim Pastor Fred Tag.

The fire at Calvary Baptist Church was the second fire ruled an arson in metro Atlanta this month, according to Wayne Whitaker, a spokesman for Oxendine's office.

Fire broke out at East Point First Mallalieu United Methodist Church, in East Point, early this month, according to Whitaker.

In light of the two metro-area fires, Oxendine urged congregations to follow certain safety precautions to keep their places of worship safe.

"Church fires are particularly devastating because the entire neighborhood suffers a loss, especially in areas where churches are the social, as well as spiritual, heart of the community," Oxendine said in a statement.

Suggested safety precautions include:

* Illuminating the exterior and all entrances of church buildings, and installing motion-activated lighting near doors and windows.

* Promoting church watches in the neighborhood.

* Educating neighbors about recognizing any unusual activities, and encouraging them to take note of strangers spending time in the area, both on foot and in vehicles.

* Being aware that individuals may pose as service technicians to get into a church.

* Installing combination burglary and fire alarms.

Oxendine's office and the Georgia Arson Control Board sponsor an Arson Hotline. Anyone with information in either fire is encouraged to call the hotline at 1-800-282-5804. Calls are taken 24 hours a day, and callers may remain anonymous.