Arson is suspected in an early-morning fire that destroyed First Pentecostal Church (FPC) in Holly Springs, Mississippi, on Wednesday. In the church parking lot, investigators found graffiti reading, “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic].”
For the past month, FPC has been in a legal battle with the city of Holly Springs, which deemed churches nonessential in its stay-at-home order even though Republican Gov. Tate Reeves had deemed them essential. Investigators haven’t linked the court fight with the arson but are offering a reward for tips in the case.
Church Has ‘no enemies that we know of’
Pastor Jerry Waldrop, who’s led FPC for 31 years, says church leadership has “racked our brains” but not come up with “anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this.” The church has “no enemies that we know of,” he adds.
Waldrop, who’s determined to rebuild, says FPC has “a tight group that’s been faithful” and will use “whatever means is necessary” to start over. The pastor wouldn’t comment on his church’s lawsuit, which was awaiting a ruling on an emergency appeal.
City Attorney Shirley Byers claims that 35 to 40 congregants attended an Easter-weekend worship service at FPC and didn’t maintain proper distancing. The church was cited for violating the Holly Springs emergency order, which temporarily banned in-person gatherings. (In late April, the order was changed to permit drive-thru services.)
In its complaint against the city, the church says it held outdoor services when weather allowed and practiced social distancing indoors during poor weather. FPC claims that police officers interrupted a midweek Bible study as well as the Easter service.
Governor: ‘What is this pandemic doing to us?’
News of the suspected arson is “distressing” to Stephen Crampton, the church’s attorney. The church, he says, has been “grieving the inability to gather as a congregation since the COVID-19 pandemic stay-home orders forced the closure of their church home, and now they must grieve the loss of this spiritual home, their place of worship.”
Crampton says police officers threatened Bible study attendees and churchgoers, making them fearful to meet in person. “These were outrageous violations of these parishioners’ rights,” he says, adding that everyone was complying with safety requirements.
Speaking with Fox News, Crampton says FPC had been the target of “bad comments” on social media during the recent legal proceedings. “I don’t think it’s any secret that there’s a growing hostility toward churches across the board,” he says. “And now, here are churches…that are sort of stirring up the waters by being outspoken and somewhat firm about seeking to protect their Constitutional rights.”
Crampton, who works with the Thomas More Society, adds, “There is just a segment [of the population] that takes issue with the church standing up, and the church just being the church.”
This morning, Gov. Reeves tweeted: “I am heartbroken and furious. In Mississippi, a church was just burned to the ground. They had been trying to open services.” He added, “What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country.”