When word came last week that three college students from the Birmingham area had been arrested in relation to the church arson in our area, a great prayer of thanksgiving was raised.

A month earlier four rural churches were set afire here in West Alabama’s Black Belt. A few days earlier five other churches had been burned. Since then two more have been torched by what seems to be “copy cats.”

In each case, the nine related fires were set in the pulpit, Lord’s Supper table area. Investigators and local church folk have puzzled over what this means. A large force of FBI and ATF agents poured over leads and interviewed people. The common denominators seem to have been rural, poor, vulnerable and Baptist.

The media, regional, national and international, has descended upon the area. Some seemed disappointed when they were told that it is no longer 1960 in the Black Belt. Some were impressed that Baptists were reaching across the old racial divides to help one another through these hard times.

I have certainly been proud of the larger Baptist movement as it has responded to the two burned churches with which I have been working during the month.

Since less than a week after the fires pastors and church leaders in our area have met each Monday to discuss needs and resources available to help the Dancy First Baptist Church and Galilee Baptist Church in Panola. We have also reflected upon what God is teaching us as we respond to these tragedies.

We have been pleased with the attitude expressed by Dancy when just days after the fire, it put a sign on its marquee which reads, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.”

More recently, the Dancy pastor responded to an offer of help by directing the caller to Galilee. He told the individual offering to help that he felt the needs of Galilee were greater than those of Dancy.

As we have prayed and shared together at these Monday meetings, our appreciation of one another has deepened. Some old stereotypes have been shattered. Friendships have been forged.

And we have steadfastly refused to let the hatefulness of the arsonists set the agenda and turn us to being hateful in our response. Our efforts and our prayers are directed toward helping the Dancy and the Galilee churches rise from the ashes strong and better. As a by-product we will all be better and wiser Christians.

We pledge also to reject the professional “fear mongers” who seem intent upon viewing these fires as part of a growing conspiracy against evangelical Christians. The motives of the arsonists will come out in the trials. The motives of the fear mongers are transparent to us.

Reflecting upon some events over the past decade in the lives of those of us who have been involved in this effort, we now realize that God was preparing us to come together for this ministry at this time. All he asked was for us to be obedient Christians. Further, we are beginning to wonder what God is preparing for us to do next as a consequence of our experiences in responding to this set of events.

Certainly, in the excitement generated by the solving of this set of crimes, we must not lose sight of the fact that the churches will need help in getting their lives together. Please do not forget the victims.

(Note: Some may find “Dancy” to be a rather strange name for a Baptist church. When the ATN Railroad built south from Reform, Ala., to Mobile, it planted little towns along the way. Often the towns were named for prominent citizens in the area. In this case the Dancy family was a headed by an M.D. who lived near where the town was platted.)

Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church Leadership in Carrollton, Ala. His blog is here.

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