Did I ever tell you about the time that I came upon a scene of arson while the building was still burning and the apparent arsonist was still there?
I guess it has been almost 12 years ago now. I was headed down route 17 South toward my office very early on a Sunday morning--it was still dark. Near Bolivia, NC I noticed that the building of Faith Baptist Church was on fire and there was a man standing near the fire watching it. I whipped into the church parking lot, rolled down my window and shouted to the man: "Did you call the fire department?"
I seemed to break some trance he was in and he jerked his head in my direction. "There's a fire in the house of the Lord!" he yelled back.
I could see that.
I repeated my question, "Did you call the fire department?"
He replied, "There's a fire in the house of the Lord!"
This conversation was going no where.
I did not have a cell phone so I zipped out of the parking lot headed for a pay phone less than a mile away. As I ripped out of the parking lot I noticed another car headed south on route 17 that had stopped, the driver no doubt noticing the fire. As I came out of the parking lot, this car fell in behind me. I knew what they were thinking so I quickly pulled off into the median and walked back toward the other vehicle that had pulled over behind me.
There were several men who appeared to be businessmen in the car. One of them had a bag phone that was standard for the few people who possessed cell phones at that time. He was already on the phone with 911 dispatch talking about the situation. As I suspected these men assumed that the operator of the vehicle tearing out of the parking lot (me) was the arsonist. They had not noticed the man standing in front of the church watching the fire. After I pointed him out the man on the bag phone told the dispatcher about the fire watcher.
Soon the businessmen (if that's what they were) and I were sitting in our cars in the church parking lot watching the man who was transfixed as he watched the burning church building. It wasn't long before both firefighters and sheriff's deputies arrived. The firefighters set about putting out the blaze and the deputies took into custody the man staring at the fire. He didn't try to escape. He stood there in his trance until he was peacefully led away.
In the end the fire was ruled an act of arson and the damage from the blaze itself was confined to a small area of Faith Baptist Church. However, the smoke damage was extensive throughout the facility. For months the folks at Faith had to meet in their fellowship hall which was in a separate building. I never heard what became of the man who stood and watched the burning church.
Of the lessons that might be learned from this event, one lesson is related to this fact: For a few moments I was an arson suspect. The men in that car saw a church on fire at the same moment that they saw a car tearing out of the parking lot. They got on the phone telling authorities about the fire and describing my vehicle as they tried to get close enough to get my license number.
Sometimes I have wondered what would have happened if the fire-watching man had run into the woods surrounding that church after I spoke with him. One day in the week after that fire I spoke with someone in law enforcement who told me that the man who was arrested was a drifter who was not from this area. If he had run into the dark woods and had waited out the excitement and continued to wander somewhere else, what would have happened to me?
What if, when I went to point out the man watching the fire to those apparent businessmen, he was gone. I might have said something like, "Well there was a man there a minute ago." What would those businessmen have thought about me then?
What if, when the deputies arrived, those businessmen had told them what they saw and then I had told them about a strange man who was now no where to be seen. No one in the area had heard of a man who fit his description. If that man had run away witnesses would have been able to put only one person at the scene of that fire: me. And I would have been hurrying away from the scene at that.
Would I have been arrested? Would I have been charged? Would I have been convicted? If I had managed to convince the authorities or a jury that I had nothing to do with that fire, would many in this community have nonetheless thought of me as an arsonist anyway?
I had only been the pastor of the church I now serve for a little while when this incident happened. If I had been suspected or accused in that crime, what would it have done to my standing in the congregation? What might have happened to my future as a pastor in any church?
Because of this experience I tend to take a little more seriously the legal principle of "innocent until proven guilty." I try hard not to rush to judgment. Jesus' injunction in Matthew 7:1 that we judge not lest we be judged took on new meaning for me 12 years ago.
I suppose the thing that bothers me the most is that, if I had been in the position of those businessmen, I would have drawn the same conclusion they did. If I had seen a church on fire just as I had seen a car tearing out of the church parking lot I would have thought an arsonist was speeding away in the car leaving the church.
That thought scares me as much as the thought that I was falsely suspected of committing a terrible crime.