HARDEEVILLE, S.C. - Almost every year for 70 years, Deacon Esbury Young celebrated the birth of his savior at tiny Arm Oak Baptist Church.
This year, that won't be possible.
Something was thrown through a window of the 18-member African-American church Sunday night, officials said, starting a fire that destroyed about 15 percent of the 94-year-old structure.
So this year, church members will celebrate Christmas on their own. They plan to meet next week to discuss possible locations for future services while their church is being repaired.
Young is saddened by the fire that almost ruined the only church home he's ever known, and he's confused by a world in which such a thing could happen.
"I don't know why they would want to pick on this little church," he said, grasping a pew in his weathered hand.
In recent years, there have been several burglaries at the church, said Young and pastor David A. Mitchell III. Thieves have stolen heaters, amplifiers, air conditioners, anything of value.
This year alone, Young said, the church has been burglarized at least four times. "We're just trying to get back on our feet and someone came and knocked us down again," Young said, shaking his head.
"Even though this happened this time of year, we still have our lives and our families. No one was hurt or injured," Mitchell said, adding that it's a blessing the church wasn't destroyed.
A security alarm in the church went off shortly before 8 p.m.
"I came up here and saw smoke coming out of that window," said Young, pointing. He said he noticed a "a gassy smell" in the air and assumed a gas heater caused the fire.
He raced home and called the fire department, and both the Tillman and Hardeeville departments responded.
At about the same time, Mitchell heard about the fire and went to the small building, eight miles outside of Hardeeville, near Tillman.
"So many things ran through my mind," he said. "When I saw that the church was still standing, that gave me some relief."
But seeing the church in the daylight proved to be more emotionally taxing than Sunday evening for Mitchell.
The church's interior was eerily cold; there was no heat because the electrical system was damaged. A heavy smell of smoke hung in the air, and a large piece of plywood covered the space that used to be a window. Broken shards of glass were still lying in the grass outside.
Arm Oak Baptist Church was founded March 3, 1901. The original structure was wooden. Part of it was rebuilt with concrete blocks in 1962.
A joint investigation of the fire is being conducted by the Jasper County Sheriff's Office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and federal Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms personnel.
"We have determined it to be arson," said SLED spokesman Hugh Munn. "There's not a lot of fire damage, fortunately, although there was some smoke damage."
Besides the smoke damage, the window, a large portion of the wall and floor and at least three pews burned during the blaze.
Assistant special agent Lou Elianno of ATF and Capt. Tommy Scoggins of the Jasper County Sheriff's Office said the fire was caused by some kind of "accelerator device."
"The initial indication was that something was thrown through the window, which resulted in fire," Elianno said.
He added that material from the device has been sent to a state laboratory for tests.
Insurance adjustors will go to the church on Friday, Mitchell said, and determine the amount of the damage. The church does have a minimal amount of insurance, he said, but probably not enough to cover the damages.
Young's estimation of damage was about $12,000.
Still, it wasn't enough to shake his faith.
"God can take it down and He can have it put back up. This can't stop us from serving God," he said.
Only hours after Young's church burned, the predominantly white Trinity United Methodist Church in the Shiloh community in Sumter County was destroyed by fire. The cause has not been determined.
Gov. David M. Beasley issued a press release describing the fires as "an especially tragic event so close to Christmas."
Beasley said, "To people of faith, a church is more than four walls. It is the house of God. Willfully desecrating a house of worship is a despicable and violent attack on the values our society holds dear."
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