Fire damage forces church out of building

In the six months leading up to a suspected arson Monday at Central United Methodist Church, thieves have broken into the office at least four times – rummaging through desk drawers and once stealing a vending machine.

Investigators won't say whether the crimes are related to the fire that they say was intentionally set in the church at 6030 Albemarle Road. Members of its congregation say they don't know what to think.

“We have no information on who or what or why any of this has happened,” said Pastor Angela Pleasants. “We are just praying for whoever did this.”

Someone broke in through a back door and set the fire in an office near the pastor's study, church officials said. A passerby reported flames in the front of the brick building about 6 a.m. Firefighters contained the fire mostly to offices, but much of the church was damaged by smoke.

Fire investigators are reviewing police reports and numerous 911 calls made during the fire, fire Capt. Rob Brisley said.

The damage has forced the church to find alternative locations for numerous agencies to meet, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, senior citizen groups and an English-speaking class for Burmese immigrants. The church also found a temporary office for its tenant – Mi Casa Su Casa – a private non-profit that serves the Hispanic/Latino community with referral services and wellness programs.

The church plans to hold its Sunday service on its front lawn, weather permitting.

Numerous churches and other agencies have stepped up to offer money or space and other support.

The congregation, which has nearly 500 members, is predominantly white but has reached out to its growing, diverse neighborhood, attracting African Americans, Nigerians, Latinos and others.

Authorities aren't giving a motive for the arson. But church officials say the neighborhood is no stranger to crime.

“In our cases, they've never really stolen anything,” Pleasants said. “We figure they are looking for money, but we don't keep money in the church office.”

Nearly everything in Pleasants' study burned in the fire, including the contents of a shelf near her desk with family photos, reports and books.

The one thing unharmed, she said, is a cross carved from a dogwood tree, given to her by a church member. Inscribed on it is the verse from John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

“I grabbed it and hugged it,” Pleasants said. “I think it says a lot about how we're all feeling right now.”