Macon-Bibb leaders, clergy condemn church arson during prayer vigil

In sparse shade behind a burned-out Unionville church, Macon-Bibb County leaders and clergy lifted up prayers Monday.

Three weeks after someone deliberately set fire to God’s Power Church of Christ, Associate Pastor Jeanette Dudley shared a message from her congregation that met Sunday in Twiggs County.

“We are able to find in our hearts a way to forgive and to lay aside every weight and the sin that so beset us, and run this race with patience,” Dudley said.

About 50 people gathered at 1985 Cedar Ave. to support church members who fell victim to two burglaries before the fire and the theft of copper Friday from a panel box near an air conditioning unit.

“I just feel nothing but love,” Dudley said. “This just makes me smile.”

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Larry Schlesinger, the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, organized the prayer vigil and news conference with the Council of Clergy.

“Any willful burning of a house of worship here in Macon or anywhere is really an attack upon us all,” Schlesinger said. “We need to respond and stand together and really get to the bottom of it all.”

Mayor Robert Reichert said the fire “sends shock waves throughout the community.”

“We acknowledge and understand there is good and evil in the world,” Reichert said.

“What we find is especially distressing is when a church or religious institution is the subject of a suspected arson case.”

Pastor Jason McClendon, of Community Church of God on Grant Avenue, said the gathering shows a united front against attacks.

“This meeting today proves enough is enough,” McClendon said. “We’re not going to stand back while innocent people are attacked who are actually trying to do good things in the community.”

The Rev. Jimmy Asbell Jr. from Vineville United Methodist Church led the group in prayer.

“We gather here in the sight of destruction and loss to pray for justice,” Asbell said. “Houses of worship exist to serve the world and when time and energy and money have been spent to rebuild, it hurts the ministry.”

An account for God’s Power Church of Christ has been established at American Pride banks in Macon and Warner Robins.

Macon-Bibb Fire Chief Marvin Riggins celebrated the community’s propensity to work together in the wake of a tragedy.

“We, too, will rise like the phoenix,” Riggins said. “This will be rebuilt. We’re very hopeful of that and this church will again be very viable in this community.”

Willie B. Jackson, of neighboring New Piney Grove Baptist Church, came to uplift the embattled congregation next door.

“I was sad, really, because I come by here going to church,” Jackson said.

New Piney Grove’s parking lot is fenced with barbed wire over chain link.

“That’s a necessity because right across the street over there, you can tell why,” said Jackson, gesturing to a graffiti-covered abandoned house.

Sheriff David Davis expects positive things to happen in the aftermath.

“Sometimes bad things have to happen for good people to get together where they normally would not be,” Davis said.

Wayne Anthony, chairman of the Council of Clergy, wants churches to play a larger role in revitalization of high-crime areas.

“Every neighborhood in Macon is important. As one neighborhood rises, so does the whole city,” Anthony said.

Macon-Bibb County fire investigators, deputies and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are investigating the blaze.

Evidence indicated the fire was deliberately set, but investigators said there was no evidence that the crime at the predominantly black church was racially motivated.

Riggins stressed the need for information.

“If you know something, even the smallest little thing that you think you might feel like is not relevant, please let us know and we will sift through that,” he said.

Anyone with information is urged to call Macon Regional Crimestoppers at 877-68-CRIME or the Georgia Arson Control Hotline at 800-282-5804.

At the end of the news conference, attendees held hands and sang “We Shall Overcome.”

Dudley said she never expected to be in this predicament, but is grateful for the support.

“We have learned to endure hardness as a good solider, so right now we’re just taking it day by day.”

To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.