A Mississippi church that filed a lawsuit against a town ban on worship gatherings was destroyed by a fire Wednesday morning that investigators believed was set as an act of arson.
Investigators said they picked up multiple cans of spray paint on the ground of First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi, that may have been used for graffiti on the pavement of the church parking lot. The graffiti in the parking lot reads: “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits (sic),” Fox 13 reports.
“We do believe that based on the evidence and what we have seen at the scene and on top of the hill this was an arson,” Marshall County Major Kelly McMillan said, according to the news station.
Pastor Jerry Waldrop, who has pastored the church for over 30 years, told news station WMC5 that it’s “hard to wrap your head around the idea that someone may have orchestrated this or done this.”
Waldrop said the church has “no enemies that we know of.”
“We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this,” he said.
Waldrop told Fox 13 that he’s unsure of what to do because the church building is now destroyed.
“We are going to keep the faith, and we’re going to keep doing what we have always done, and maybe not on this location,” Waldrop said. “I’ll get with our faithful people, and maybe we’ll rent a building or whatever we need to do for the time being.”
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves responded to the church fire on Twitter Thursday, saying he was “heartbroken and furious.”
“I am heartbroken and furious. In Mississippi, a church was just burned to the ground. They had been trying to open services,” Reeves tweeted.
“There was graffiti on the lot which read ‘Bet you stay home now you hypocrites.’ What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country,” he wrote.
I am heartbroken and furious. In Mississippi, a church was just burned to the ground. They had been trying to open services. There was graffiti on the lot which read “Bet you stay home now you hypocrites.”— Tate Reeves (@tatereeves) May 21, 2020
What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country. pic.twitter.com/TdGHqs9evv
Prior to the incident, the church had been in a legal battle with local authorities over lockdown measures.
The church sued the city of Holly Springs in April, alleging police officers had disrupted a church Bible study and Easter service. Holly Springs City Attorney Shirley Byers said nearly 40 worshipers inside the church building were not practicing social distancing on April 10 when a violation citation was issued for the church.
Churchgoers practiced social distancing while indoors and only held indoor services when bad weather would not allow them to gather outside, the lawsuit said. Byers said the city amended its local order in late April to allow for drive-thru church services.
The governor’s safer-at-home order, which is set to expire Monday, allows churches to operate as essential businesses, but it limits the size of indoor gatherings. The Republican governor has also asked pastors to follow public health recommendations on social distancing and other practices to mitigate the spread of the virus. Reeves issued guidelines this week for places of worship to restart services inside their buildings.
Authorities are offering a reward for tips on the arson investigation.
Church members hugged and cried in the parking lot as investigators sifted through the rubble for clues to figure out who might be responsible.