The Charlotte Fire Department is investigating an early morning Wednesday fire at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church as arson, Senior Fire Investigator David Williams said.
A 911 emergency call from a resident in a nearby apartment complex received at 12:52 a.m. turned into a third alarm by 1:21 a.m., with a total of 14 engines and 75 firefighters on hand to quell the flames. Williams said it took around an hour to get the fire under control.
“The Baptist church on Briar Creek Road right before Central, it’s on fire,” the caller told dispatchers. “It’s really big.”
Firefighters realized when they arrived that it was a “monumental task,” Williams said.
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Two firefighters were injured and treated for heat-related injuries. Williams said they don’t believe anyone was in the building at the time of the fire.
“When I got here I was even amazed to see that the flames were so high,” Mannix Kinsey, the pastor at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church, told WBTV. “I am thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this church is going to be destroyed.’”
The church building sustained excessive damage to its back left wing, used as an education building. Williams said it is close to a total loss.
The rest of the property, including the sanctuary and gymnasium, has smoke damage. He said they estimate total damage is more than $250,000.
Kinsey’s wife, Rhonda, is the co-pastor. Both are African-American. About 100 people, most of them black, attend the church. It also shares the campus with two or three immigrant churches, including one whose members were born in Nepal.
Briar Creek Baptist began in 1951 as Commonwealth Baptist Church. And for the next three decades or so, it was a predominantly white church.
But, as the demographics of the neighborhood changed, so did the congregation. And about 13 years ago, the church called an African-American pastor, the Rev. Dennis Hall. When he left a few years ago, Briar Creek Baptist turned to Kinsey, then one of its leading members, to pastor the church.
Bob Lowman, director of the Metrolina Baptist Association – which Briar Creek Road Baptist has been a member of since its formation – said the church is still undergoing an intentional transformation to reach out in hopes of becoming still more ethnically diverse.
Williams said investigators are working to determine whether the fire was a hate crime.
Kinsey told WBTV he hopes it isn’t.
“We are still talking about this same issue and this is 2015,” he said. “We all have to consider what else do we need to do to actually be able to work together.”
Lowman said the church hosts a summerlong weekday camp for children called Camp “Son” Shine. The camp was canceled Wednesday. Lowman said it will shortly move to a nearby site in Plaza Midwood that was home to Green Memorial Baptist Church until it dissolved recently. It has an operational gym and kitchen, Lowman said.
Lowman said the pastors at Briar Creek Baptist are “doing as well as we expected.”
Lowman said he and the pastors had “no idea” whether the church could have been torched as part of a hate crime. But, he added, “with everything going on, it certainly didn’t surprise me.”
In the 1990s, a number of black churches were torched by arsonists in the South.
In Charlotte almost two years ago, police arrested an 18-year-old in connection with a fire set at Providence Baptist Church on Randolph Road. It’s a predominantly white church.
The Charlotte Fire Investigation Task Force, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, a special agent with the State Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and an agent with the State Bureau of Investigation are working together to pursue leads.
Anyone with information is asked to call Crime Stoppers at 704-334-1600. Tim Funk contributed to this story.