Last of 9 burned Alabama churches to be rebuilt

Published 5:22 pm Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rebuilding is set to begin next month on the last of nine rural Alabama churches that were burned by arsonists nearly three years ago.

Ashby Baptist Church was one of nine that were struck by Birmingham college student arsonists in 2006. Since then the congregation changed pastors and shuffled proposed building plans but now appears ready to start construction in January on a $1.7 million campus facing Bibb County Highway 139.

“We signed a contract with a builder and plan to start building in the next few weeks,” said the Rev. Eddie Hughes, who took over as pastor in March. “A couple of attempts were started, but we didn’t have the right plan and right situation.”

The work could conclude a dark chapter in the life of the state’s rural churches. Matthew Cloyd, a UAB student and Benjamin Moseley, who was attending Birmingham-Southern College, admitted setting fire to the nine churches. Another BSC student, Russell DeBusk, pleaded guilty to taking part in burning the five Bibb churches.

Turmoil at the churches continued even after suspects were arrested. Several of the churches underwent changes in pastors and infighting over how to use money donated for rebuilding.

“It was really shocking to everyone,” said Rev. Steve Patrick, now pastor of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Chilton County. “Nobody ever expected anything like that to happen in a sleepy place like Bibb County. There was a fear that spread throughout the county and the state.”

Many rural pastors and lay leaders attended seminars and training sessions on improving security. “A lot of rural churches added security cameras and alarm systems,” Patrick said.

Ashby Baptist, which once had more than 135 members, saw many members depart after the fire. The church changed pastors and struggled to settle on a rebuilding plan. An earlier design was scrapped.

The church finally settled its issues and is positioned for a fresh start.

“I believe, no matter what happens, God is still in control,” Hughes said. “God’s been in control in all of this.”

The plans include a 230-seat auditorium and Sunday school space. The church has been meeting in two modular buildings since shortly after the fire.

Hughes said there’s excitement about a new church. “The builders are optimistic we might be in by Easter,” Hughes said. “If we’re in by next Thanksgiving, I’ll be happy.”