Police officials believe the fire was a result of arson. Investigators from the FBI are expected to get involved.
First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi is currently being investigated after it was completely burned down in the early hours of May 20. Investigators suspect arson could be the cause behind the fire due to a suspicious message left at the scene of the fire. After firefighters put the blaze out, police officials found the message spray-painted on the ground in front of the doors of the church. It read: "Bet you stay home now. You hypocrites." The church had earlier filed a lawsuit against the city of Holly Springs, claiming that its stay-at-home orders were in violation of the church’s right to free speech, The New York Times reports.
In the center of the message, police officials claim they also found an atomic symbol with "A," which is usually used as a logo by atheist groups. Additionally, Maj. Kelly McMillen of the Marshall County Sheriff’s Department said they found a can of white spray paint and a flashlight at the scene. While no suspects have been identified thus far, investigators from the local police department as well as those from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives are on the case. It has been suggested that the Federal Bureau of Investigation may also get involved. They were expected to go through the scene on Friday.
Governor of Mississipi Tate Reeves took to Twitter to share his condolences. "I am heartbroken and furious," he wrote. "What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country." Meanwhile, Nick Fish, the president of American Atheists, a group that uses the logo found at the scene, condemned the act. He affirmed in a statement, "I’m disgusted that anyone would associate a symbol of our community with something so incompatible with our values as atheists." He called the event a "heinous act of destruction." The possible arson has sent shockwaves throughout the city of Holly Springs, which is home to fewer than 8,000 residents.
Nonetheless, Maj. McMillen and his team are determined to find out who was responsible. He stated, "Hopefully, with the Lord’s help, we can get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible." Since news of the incident broke, local resident Ashley Morales organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe to support the community and fellow Christians. As of early morning Monday, she has already raised $9,100 of her $10,000 goal. Expressing her gratitude, she wrote, "What an amazing show of support! Thank you, thank you, thank you! I know that your love, gifts, and prayers are appreciated by the entire congregation. Over 160 people have donated, and this link has been shared over 1,000 times - praise God!"
Across the country, several public institutions have refused to abide by lockdown restrictions imposed by local governments. As "Open American" demonstrators continue to gather in protest against stay-at-home orders, First Pentecostal Church was only one of the places of worship that have joined the fight. Though the city of Holly Springs had allowed for drive-in services to be held, church pastor Jerry Waldrop believed the lockdown restrictions were interfering with his congregation's ability to worship. A judge blocked his lawsuit and argued in a scathing opinion piece that the church was "proceeding in an excessively reckless and cavalier manner and with insufficient respect for the enormity of the health crisis which the pandemic presents."
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
Since then, numerous other churches have followed in First Pentecostal Church's footsteps. While President Donald Trump seems to be on their side, medical experts believe it is too soon to allow non-essential services to operate as usual. Nevertheless, no matter how dangerous the church's actions may be, nothing warrants arson. It can only be hoped that those responsible for the cruel act will be swiftly brought to justice.
Our client in Holly Springs, Mississippi, the First Pentecostal Church, has suffered a terrible tragedy. Their building burned down this morning and authorities believe it was arson. #ReligiousFreedom #arson https://t.co/Gmq72CxMIi pic.twitter.com/GCagPfHRII— @ThomasMoreSoc (@ThomasMoreSoc) May 20, 2020