Marshall County Sheriff Department criminal investigator Kelly McMillen told the outlet that authorities believe the fire was an arson based on evidence located around the scene and a nearby hill.
A large blast from the back of the building blew out the front, according to the news station. Spray paint cans were found near the church.
Pastor Jerry Waldrop told the station that it was hard for him to wrap his head around knowing someone might have deliberately destroyed the church.
“We have really wracked our brains,” he said. “We have no idea, no enemies.”
Church members embraced and consoled one another as authorities searched what was left of their place of worship for clues, Fox 13 Memphis reported.
The loss of the church has drawn rebuke from nearby residents and the state’s governor, WATN Local 24 reported.
Gov. Tate Reeves (R) tweeted Thursday that he was “heartbroken and furious” over the church’s burning.
“What is this pandemic doing to us,” he tweeted with a picture of the destroyed church. “We need prayer for this country.”
Just weeks after the house of worship held indoor gatherings with dozens of people — and then sued to keep authorities out — it now finds itself enveloped in a mystery that has baffled residents of Holly Springs, a town of 7,600.
Police say they dispersed several events last month that violated city orders banning large indoor gatherings. On April 10, the church received a citation for services with almost 40 congregants sitting inside.
Church members also protested the city’s restriction on in-person services in April, according to WATN Local 24.
Then the church sued, claiming state law was on its side. Mississippi’s “safer-at-home” order never prohibited religious services, and Reeves permitted houses of worship to welcome large groups if social distancing was in place.
Besides, the lawsuit said, services had been a drive-through event — which are now legal in Holly Springs — and only moved indoors because of bad weather.
Stephen Crampton, the church’s attorney, told WMC the fire and graffiti were “very clearly directed at this particular lawsuit and the church’s stand for its own constitutional rights.”
Crampton told WATN Local 24 in a statement that the church hopes the perpetrators of the crime are brought to justice.
“Our most sincere prayers are with the people of this church and their pastor,” he said. “They have been grieving the inability to gather as a congregation since the covid-19 pandemic stay-home orders forced the closure of their church home and now they must grieve the loss of this spiritual home, their place of worship.”
Waldrop told Fox 13 Memphis the building was a total loss but its devastation would not hinder worship services.
“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,” he 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.”