Religion

Criminals’ efforts to tear down churches wound up building bridges instead

The plain red brick church with the cross in front sits just passed a sign, off an unpaved road, indicating the ending of police jurisdiction.

Woodland Baptist Church in the Ladonia area, just west of Phenix City, was the victim of arson and vandalism that was reported on Jan. 4, 2008. Three other churches in the area were vandalized or burned around the same time.

The damage at Woodland was extensive — estimated at more than $500,000 — and its contents were virtually destroyed. Inside, arsonists had written these words: “Teach the children to worship Satan.”

After worshiping in temporary facilities, members will re-dedicate their rebuilt building at a 10 a.m. service Sunday. The Rev. Wayne Burns of the Russell Baptist Association will preach.

“The Lord brings good out of bad,” said the Rev. Bobby Watford, Woodland’s pastor for the past 12 years. “We have a closer relationship with the Lord, and with other people.” Right after the Woodland fire, the church marquee said: God is still in control.

Others victimized

The four churches are in Russell or Lee counties and sit within 15 miles of each other.

Greater Peace and Goodwill AME Church on Brown Road in Crawford was the first victim. The Russell County Sheriff’s Department was called at 3:17 p.m. New Year’s Day 2008 to a fire at the church. Arson was suspected after the federal ATF, State Fire Marshal and sheriff’s department found accelerants in the building at varying points of origin.

Then, the Lee County Sheriff’s Department was called at 8:30 a.m. the next day to Concord Baptist Church on Lee Road 251 in Salem, in reference to church vandalism. Investigators found several areas of destruction, as well as satanic graffiti painted in several locations of the church.

And at 4 p.m. Jan. 3, the Lee department was called to a fire at Greater Bethelpore Baptist Church, also on Lee Road 251 in Salem. Investigators found accelerants in multiple places, leading them to suspect arson. They also discovered several areas of vandalism to a graveyard beside the church.

The last fire was reported at Woodland Baptist Church, located on Ladonia’s Bayview Drive.

Six days after the burnings and vandalisms, authorities announced the arrest of two Smiths Station men in the case.

Geoffrey Tyler Parquette, 21, and James Scott Clark, 21, both 2005 graduates of Smiths Station High School, were held on a variety of charges.

The suspects claimed to be involved in satanic activity. Both remain in the Alabama prison system. Parquette is in the Bullock Correctional Facility in Union Springs, Ala., and Clark is in the Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala. Both are due to be released in 2013, records show.

“The motive in this case was ‘the devil made me do it,’ ” Jim Cavanaugh, special agent in charge of the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office in Nashville, Tenn., said at the time. He added that “the devil couldn’t keep these men out of jail. The outcome will be rebuilt churches. They will be rebuilt and be stronger.”

Positive from a negative

Authorities estimated the damage to each burned church at $500,000-$1 million. Two of the churches — and Greater Peace and Goodwill AME Church and Greater Bethelpore Baptist — have predominantly black membership; and Woodland and Concord Baptist churches have a predominantly white membership.

“In the normal, daily routine, we wouldn’t really have crossed paths,’’ the Rev. James Parker, pastor of Crawford’s Greater Peace and Goodwill AME Church, said in 2008. “This was an eye-opener, as far as what’s needed in the community. I think the publicity that’s going along with it is going to ignite it even further than it’s ever been done before.’’

Because of the fire, Parker has gotten to know Derrick Millirons, the Sunday school director at Woodland Baptist Church.

“This thing, as bad as it was, it’s drawn us all closer together,’’ Millirons said. “And I feel like I’ve already made some new friends through all this. Reverend Parker, I’ve talked to him a lot.

“It was an initiation for fellowship,’’ Parker continued. “They messed around and started a different kind of fire … These guys have presented us with the opportunity to break a lot of barriers.’’

Not only barriers of race, but of age, he said, because of the age of the suspects arrested: ‘’We want to reach out to young men. We need to reach out to the youth of the community, on both sides.’’

He’s not angry at either of the two Smiths Station men who were jailed. “Me personally, I’d go down there and shake their hands and say, ‘Thank you for the blessing,’ ” he said.

But he feels sorry for them: “It’s just sad that someone 21 years old has that much time on their hands. I don’t even think they are Satan worshippers. They just don’t have anything to occupy their time. I would say that’s more an excuse than a reason.’’

Of the four churches hit, Concord Baptist Church in Lee County’s Bleecker community had the least damage. On Jan. 2, church workers found windows and glass doors broken, sound equipment smashed and graffiti on the walls. But a burglar alarm had sounded, and the vandal fled.

‘’From what I’ve been told, I really believe he had intentions to burn us down, too,’’ the Rev. Bud Passmore, Concord’s pastor, said in 2008.

The very next day, arson destroyed the Greater Bethelpore Baptist Church, just down the road from Concord. Passmore went there to offer his assistance.

“I’ve been here 15 1/2 years, and I did not know anybody at Greater Bethelpore, which is probably a mile and a half down the road,’’ Passmore told the Ledger-Enquirer. He has since met two of the deacons. “That probably never would have happened if it hadn’t been for this, so it’s probably kind of going to be a bond from now on between us and them, and between Greater Peace and Woodland,’’ he said.

The churches then had a community service at Concord to show their appreciation to the law enforcement agencies that so quickly solved the crimes.

“It looks like to us like it’s time to create an atmosphere of unity, to say that if you attack or try to destroy one phase of society, the other phase is going to kick in, to where we all support each other,’’ Parker said.

Concord Baptist in Bleeker and Greater Peace and Goodwill AME have been repaired and rebuilt. Greater Bethelpore Baptist in Smiths Station is still rebuilding and seeking to raise money to finish the reconstruction.

This week, in an interview with the Ledger-Enquirer, Watford of Woodland Baptist was asked if he prayed for the arsonists.

“I sure do,” he said.

Staff Writers Tim Chitwood and Harry Franklin contributed to this report.

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