Date 12 May 2003 15:49:15 -0400
Note #7682 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:
by John Filiatreau
Presbyterian church scorched but undaunted after arson attack
LOUISVILLE - The dreaded call came at the suitably alarming hour of 1 a.m.
An alarm-company dispatcher told the Rev. Malcolm Laing that his First Presbyterian Church was on fire.
Say hello to every pastor's nightmare.
Laing and his wife dashed to their 65-year-old church, where several companies of firefighters - one from a station next-door to the church - were
corraling a smoky blaze centered in the office of associate pastor Janelle Tibbetts.
"We're just horrified," Jennifer Laing told reporters at the scene. "It just sickens us all."
Laing had feared for First church's newly renovated sanctuary, dedicated five months ago. He whispered a prayer of thanks that it hadn't been
The news was not so good for Rev. Tibbetts, a 2000 graduate of Columbia Seminary who is in charge of youth and family ministries at the 200-member
church on Balboa Boulevard. She lost her treasured theology library and a host of other personal items (all insured but largely irreplaceable).
"Luckily it was pretty well confined to my office," she said later. "But my office was completely gutted. ... Oddly, the one thing
that was relatively unscathed was a sample pack for our Vacation Bible School. I'm taking that as a sign that God doesn't want the VBS
No one was injured or killed. The building sustained an estimated $100,000 worth of damage. If its roof must be replaced, as expected, the toll
will go higher.
Arson investigators and their fire-sniffing dogs soon deduced that someone had set the fire, using gasoline or another "accelerant" and
what investigators called a "primitive ignition device."
The blaze proved to be the first of a series of arson fires in places of worship in the San Fernando Valley, a section of metropolitan Los Angeles.
On April 28, a blaze was set in the vestibule of a Baha'i community center on Genesta Avenue, one block away from First Presbyterian, causing
more than $10,000 in damage. The next day a fire of suspicious origin damaged the roof of a predominantly Iranian synagogue on Ventura Boulevard.
Then, just after dawn on May 7, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through a stained-glass window at Valley Beth Shalom, a synagogue also on Ventura
Boulevard; the ensuing fire was put out by the facility's sprinkler system.
No one has been hurt in any of the fires.
Local officials this week classified the spate of four arson fires in 11 days as hate crimes and offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to
"These are acts of terrorism," said Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn. "They're acts of hatred. And they tear at the very fabric of
Hahn said the fires are "more than just crimes," adding: "People have come here because maybe they faced persecution in other
countries for practicing their faith. So this is something we can't tolerate here."
The arson cases were assigned to Los Angeles' House of Worship Task Force, a local/federal group formed in 1996 after attacks on several places of
worship. They will be assisted by 65 detectives from the antiterrorism unit of the Encino Police Department.
Earlier this week, Tibbetts said, "We haven't seen so many police officers on patrol since ... Ever."
Fire Chief William Bamattre said he suspects that the fires, all within a mile or two of each other, were the work of one person.
Tibbetts said First church, a redevelopment congregation, hadn't received any threats or had any trouble in recent months.
"That's one of the odd things; we didn't have anything," she said. "We didn't know at first whether this was aimed at me
specifically, or the church, or the denomination. We didn't know what to think. ... At first, we thought it was an isolated incident."
She said an event of this kind inevitably has a chilling effect.
"We have people coming in, asking for help, and we have an obligation to show them hospitality," she said. "But after something like
this happens, everything is suspect. It's hard to not suspect everything and everybody. You don't know how to stay true to hospitality and still
Tibbetts told reporters earlier in the week: "It just seems surreal that someone would pick all of these different places of faith and do
something like this. It could be someone who's just angry at God in any form, or religion in any form. There's just no way of knowing."
Tibbetts said other Presbyterian churches in the Los Angeles area have come forward with offers of prayer and monetary support for First church,
which was founded in the 1940s in a barn owned by the actor Edward Everett Horton.
She said she has been buoyed by the support of her own congregation. "We pastors think we have to be the strong folks," she said,
"but it's incredible how this congregation has ministered to me."
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