Pastor Mannix Kinsey rejoiced when he went into the sanctuary at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church on Wednesday after an intentionally set fire that destroyed an entire wing of the building.
His wife and co-pastor, Rhonda Kinsey, said the sanctuary managed to avoid smoke damage that marred most of the remaining buildings.
“That’s God,” she said.
Fire investigator David Williams told reporters Wednesday that the Charlotte Fire Department and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department are investigating the incident as arson. Authorities received the call early Wednesday.
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A CMPD spokesman declined to comment on the progress of the case other than to say it is under active investigation.
Camp Son-Shine not lost
Rhonda Kinsey said Briar Creek Road Baptist Church was predominantly white 25 years ago, with a white minister. His aim was for the church to become more inclusive, an ideal the Kinseys, who are African-American, have perpetuated since they became the new pastors 2 1/2 years ago.
“He knew the vision in the community would change,” she said. “They would have to open up the doors to all races and all colors.”
The congregation has emerged to reflect the demographics of the neighborhood, with two or three immigrant churches sharing the campus, including one whose members are immigrants from Nepal.
Rhonda Kinsey said the church focuses on community outreach, and the heartbeat of their ministry is Camp Son-Shine, a summerlong day camp for area children.
“We had a whole youth area, which is actually the area we lost, with a full game room, gym, weight room...,” she said, her voice pinching.
Bob Lowman, executive director of the Metrolina Baptist Association, of which Briar Creek Road Baptist is a member, said Camp Son-Shine will move to a nearby site in Plaza Midwood that was home to Green Memorial Baptist Church until it dissolved recently.
Rhonda Kinsey, who is the camp’s director, said this would have been the second week of camp. They will start at the new location Monday.
“The kids … enrolled in the camp don’t have to be disappointed,” she said.
Arson accounts for one in every four church fires, said Chris Strain, author of “Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South.”
‘An unsettled feeling’
When the Kinseys drove up to the site as the building burned in the early hours Wednesday, Rhonda Kinsey said she was instantly in shock.
“I immediately thought the worst,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, our entire church is going to be burned down.’”
She said it wasn’t until later in the morning when arson detectives began asking questions that she realized the fire might have been intentionally set.
“I started getting an unsettled feeling,” she said.
Williams said investigators are looking into whether the fire was a hate crime.
Chris Strain, author of “Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South,” said arson accounts for 1 in every 4 church fires.
But the reasons for targeting churches are many, he said.
“Arsonists are drawn to inviting targets,” said Strain, professor of American Studies at Florida Atlantic University. “Unfortunately, churches often make very inviting targets.”
He said as houses of refuge, churches can be taken advantage of for being unlocked and without high-tech security systems. They can also be the target of angry teens lashing out against the community, their parents or God, he said.
Often, Strain said, churches are symbols of authority in a community.
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, said there have been few racially motivated arson attacks on churches since the civil rights era, particularly in comparison with arson attacks on synagogues and mosques.
“I don’t think there has been much at all in the way of racial attacks on churches,” he said.
Church leaders look ahead
On Sunday, the Briar Creek Road Baptist congregation will gather at 11 a.m. for their normal service in the church’s sanctuary.
“No lives were lost,” Rhonda Kinsey said, her voice catching again before a torrent of tears. “When I think about that, I’m extremely grateful.”