“The squiggly line of accelerant stops short of the cross — the cross where Jesus took the full weight of our sins,” Pastor Mark Bethea wrote in a Facebook post after the late September arson attack on First Baptist Church Montgomery.
Carpet in the main sanctuary was damaged, but its flame retardant properties prevented the fire from reaching the cross in the church’s pulpit, the topic of one of Bethea’s posts as he described the attack that took place in the early morning hours of Sept. 30. An arrest was made Oct. 4 in the case.
Fires were set in several areas of the church building, including the church’s main sanctuary and historic Stakely Sanctuary.
“First responders arrived quickly and minimized what could have been a catastrophic event,” Bethea said.
Several pews were destroyed and carpet burned in the main sanctuary, and the church’s reception office was destroyed.
Smoke damage extends throughout the building, and “soot resides on nearly every horizontal surface and inside every gap and opening in affected areas,” Bethea said Oct. 6. “Every organ pipe, piano string, stained glass, carpet, light, HVAC unit, pew and on and on will be examined and cleaned, replaced or restored over the coming days.”
Bethea also said initial reports circulating of damage estimates at $25,000 were inaccurate.
“I can say with a high level of confidence that number is not in the ballpark,” Bethea said.
The cleanup process will require patience and flexibility, Bethea said, noting the church will worship in Stakely Sanctuary before returning to the main sanctuary.
“That’ll make for some incredibly special Sundays in that historic sanctuary,” he said.
Xiaoqin Yan, 27, was arrested Oct. 4 and charged with second-degree arson. The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Yan also is charged with violating Title 18 U.S.C. Section 8449(i), under which a person is charged if they maliciously damage, destroy or attempt to damage or destroy, using fire or an explosive, any building, vehicle or other real or personal property used in interstate or foreign commerce or any activity affecting interstate or foreign commerce.
Numerous agencies were involved in the investigation, including the Montgomery Fire/Rescue Bureau of Investigations, the Montgomery Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Auburn Police Department. If convicted on the federal charges, Yan faces a prison sentence of between 5–20 years in prison.
Documents released publicly show that FBC Montgomery Pastor Mark Bethea told investigators he had interacted with a “small in stature Asian female” after a Sept. 26 service and escorted her from the church premises. Weeks before the fire, Bethea said he had previously interacted with an Asian female who was “acting suspiciously.” The license plate number he obtained from the vehicle she was driving was later identified as a car registered in Yan’s name, documents show.
Others connected to the church told investigators they had interacted with the woman at the church prior to the arson attack. A search of Yan’s residence and vehicle turned up multiple pieces of evidence, including masks, clothing, cigarette lighters, gas cans, cell phones, a copy of Yan’s passport and other documents, a 9mm pistol, a firearm magazine loaded with ammunition, additional 9mm rounds, a personal diary, a glove with burn marks, and receipts from Walmart for the purchase of lighters, duffel bags, gas cans and starter logs, according to the court documents.
Yan’s initial bond of $30,000 was increased to $150,000, and the judge ordered a mental assessment.
News reports said Yan was in the U.S. on a revoked student visa and had addresses in Auburn and Montgomery.
Following news of Yan’s arrest, Bethea asked for prayer for the international community at the church, which has a long-running Conversational English school that serves English as a Second Language students in the region, as well as other ministries.
“To my knowledge, this person was not part of our international fellowship at FBC (International Bible Fellowship and Worship, Conversational English, English as a Second Language, Citizenship Classes, etc.),” Bethea said, adding, “We deeply love and value our international brothers and sisters.”
Bethea also requested prayer for the suspect.
“If I believe that Jesus saved a wretched sinner such as myself, then I believe He can save a church arsonist from their sins as well.”
Praying by name
“Would you join me in praying for this person by name? Pray the Lord would open their heart to the transformative power of the gospel.”
FBC Montgomery has long been a landmark in the heart of downtown Montgomery. The church’s distinctive clay-roofed dome and stone facade is a prominent feature on South Perry Street.
The church also has been an advocate for racial reconciliation in the city. The evening of Sept. 30, a crowd gathered outside the church in a show of support.
The church met Oct. 3 in a parking garage to worship and take the Lord’s Supper. They also met Oct. 10 for an outdoor worship service and community cookout.
Bethea encouraged small groups to meet in homes, parks or online.
As cleanup and repair continues, Bethea said the church will continue to evaluate when programs and services can return to the campus.
The damage will not stop the church’s work, however, Bethea emphasized.
“The gospel still goes forward because the church is people not pews.”