Arson at church is a rare occurrence

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The white steeple of Belmont Baptist Church and shingles patterned into a cross on the north half of the church escaped the wrath of two fires there on Oct. 3.

Orange safety netting and an outer chain-link fence secure the half that didn’t, a charred sanctuary open to the elements.

“Our Hope is in the Lord,” a letterboard sign on the church read Thursday night.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports that investigators and the church’s pastor, the Rev. Mike Kidder, hope justice awaits the arsonist who caused about $400,000 damage to the church just north of 14th and Adams streets.

But two weeks later, questions of who set the fires and why remain unanswered.

That someone would desecrate a house of worship is absolutely unnerving, said Bill Moody, Lincoln’s chief fire investigator.

And it almost never happens in Nebraska’s capital, although the city sees about 26 cases of building arson a year, he said.

“I’m not recalling any,” said Moody, who’s worked in the city 25 years.

Church arson is a rarity in Nebraska as well.

The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which investigates fires at houses of worship, reported only two in the past two years, including the Belmont church. Nationwide, ATF agents probed 261 fires at houses of worship, according to bureau reports.

Of those, 122 were arson cases, the bureau reported. Investigators ruled 53 were accidental, two were caused naturally, and they couldn’t determine the cause for 84.

The lone church arson in Nebraska last year occurred in Central City, where a teenager set a fire in the children’s wing of the Heartland Evangelical Free Church in February, causing mainly smoke and water damage, according to media reports.

In Lincoln, the Belmont Baptist fire was the second church fire investigated by the feds this year.

In the other, they determined an electrical failure in a stove caused the fire at Zion Church near 27th Street and Old Cheney Road.

“Without a crystal ball, you just don’t know the circumstances,” Moody said.

In both cases, Lincoln fire officials called the ATF to assist in the investigation right away, Moody said.

“You’re always cognizant of something being a hate crime … especially a church,” he said. “It’s a sacred building.

“You want to make sure there’s not something lying below the surface.”

Generally, arson fires in Lincoln remain on the low end compared to national numbers, Moody said.

Fires started by juveniles or in dumpsters also count in the statistics, he said.

Substantial losses like the $20 million inferno at the Lincoln Public Schools headquarters set by a disgruntled staff member in 2011 are rare, Moody said.

In the Belmont fire, officials estimate damage to the 57-year-old church at 3424 N. 14th St. between $370,000 and $420,000.

The first blaze started at about 2 a.m. and destroyed most of the sanctuary. A fire wall saved the fellowship hall.

Then, someone started a second fire in the sanctuary about 10:30 that night.

“This is a perplexing one out there, especially with the second set,” Moody said.

Pastor Kidder has said it looked like someone was trying to finish off the church, which typically draws about two dozen people for Sunday services.

On the first Sunday after the fire, parishioners worshipped inside the mostly unscathed fellowship hall, joined by people from Baptist churches in Omaha, Norfolk and Grand Island, Kidder said.

Their prayers focused on the perseverance through persecution, troubles and hardships captured in Romans 8:37.

“In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”

The church has turned its attention to returning a sense of normality.

The annual potato bake — the congregation sells baked potatoes, salads and pie as a fundraiser — is set for Oct. 28 at 4:30 in the fellowship hall, Kidder said.

And they’re planning for a crowd.

“It used to be just a fundraiser for the lady’s group,” Kidder said, “and now it will be a fundraiser to help rebuild.”

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