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Birmingham-Southern College students charged in church fires

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G. David Pollick
March 9, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*


Two students at a United Methodist college have been arrested for conspiracy and arson in the early February fires at nine rural Alabama churches.

The Birmingham-Southern College students, along with a student from the University of Alabama, reportedly told federal agents the fires were set as a joke.

According to news reports, the young men set the first fire as a joke but decided to start the others to cover their tracks. If convicted, each church arson carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

Sophomores Russell DeBusk Jr. and Ben Moseley, both 19, of Birmingham-Southern, along with junior Matt Cloyd, 20, a former Birmingham-Southern student who transferred to  the University of Alabama-Birmingham, allegedly started the first church fire, then as firefighters raced to put it out, started four more, according to news reports. They started the other four church fires in a different area Feb. 7, hoping to thwart investigators. But the examination and investigation of tire tracks led to the three men.

After the arrests, Birmingham-Southern College President David Pollick vowed at a March 8 press conference that he wants Birmingham-Southern College to have an active role in helping rebuild the burned churches. This will be done through financial aid and volunteer labor and by working in partnership with the United Methodist Church’s North Alabama Annual (regional) Conference.

The college also released a statement calling the students’ action “cruel and senseless acts of destruction.” The students have been suspended and were immediately banned from the campus.

Pollick and the two United Methodist bishops of the North Alabama and Alabama-West Florida conferences expressed their concern for the families of the young men and asked for prayers for all whose lives have been impacted by the fires. Pollick said he shared “the sorrow of our neighbors whose churches represent the heart and soul of their communities.”

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Bishop William H. Willimon
“These cruel and senseless acts of destruction have profoundly touched our college community,” he said. “Where there once existed such a clear line between the harmless and playful and the harmful and cruel, we increasingly see young adults throughout our nation incapable of distinguishing between healthy and destructive conduct.”

The entire community of Birmingham-Southern College “pledges to aid in the rebuilding of these lost churches through our resources and our labor. Together, we’ll stand as a reminder of the strength of communities that transcend the differences of religion and place, as well as the effects of mindless cruelty.”

North Alabama Bishop William Willimon said United Methodists “abhor violence, especially violence against people of faith.” He told United Methodists to join their Christian brothers and sisters whose churches were affected by the fires “in their thankfulness for a possible resolution to this case.”

All of the churches burned were Baptist, and the congregations were almost evenly divided between white and black.

United Methodists in the North Alabama Conference reached out to the Baptist congregations impacted by the fires with monetary donations. Local churches sent funds or offered to send construction help. Other congregations have offered meeting space to burned-out congregations. The Beaverton (Ala.) United Methodist Church is providing space to the members of the Beaverton Freewill Baptist Church, Willimon said.

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Bishop Larry M. Goodpaster
Bishop Larry Goodpaster, of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, agreed that the actions of the students don’t reflect Christian values.

“Certainly the alleged actions of these young men do not reflect the values and beliefs that we hold as United Methodist Christians,” he said in a March 9 statement. “Let us pray for them and their families and continue to pray for all of those whose lives have been so severely impacted in this tragic sequence of events. We deplore violence and destructive behaviors that injure others, especially people of faith, and that, as in this case, destroy church property.

“Now let us find ways, as so many United Methodists already have, to assist and help rebuild those churches that were lost or heavily damaged by these fires over the last month.”

In a March 9 letter to Pollick, the Rev. R. Randy Day, top staff executive of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, also expressed support. Day had issued a statement in February condemning the burnings and noting that the board’s Women’s Division was engaged in ecumenical work related to church fires.

“We are also keeping the congregations and communities affected by the arson in our prayers,” Day said. The board is ready to help the churches through the network of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission, which includes construction teams, he said.

Day told Pollick the agency would “gladly work with the college in the organization of seminars or other educational venues on this issue. I can envision great value in the college hosting an encounter between members of the churches and families of the accused students. Restorative justice is a sustained commitment of our community and institutional ministries unit.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

 
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Resources
Birmingham-Southern College
North Alabama Annual Conference
Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference