Pastor Ernie Richards, a Baptist preacher in western North Carolina, has avoided the splenetic, anti-gay rhetoric of some of the other religious leaders in his state.
Pastor Charles Worley, well . . . hasn’t.
Among the more controversial ideas Worley has spouted from the pulpit: Imprisoning the nation’s gay men and lesbians behind “a great big large fence . . . and have that fence electrified until they can’t get out.”
Worley once told his parishioners that he could never get his idea past Congress but that his genocidal logic is sound: “In a few years, they’ll die out. You know what, they can’t reproduce.”
So early Monday, when Richards learned that his church had been burned and someone had spray-painted “anti-gay hate group” on the sidewalk, he quickly assumed it was a case of mistaken church identity.
“The word ‘assume’ is a very bad word, but I just assumed that since that graffiti is on our sidewalk, and it says ‘anti-gay hate group,’ that they were talking about the other church,” he told The Washington Post. “I don’t get up in the pulpit and rage about stuff like that.”
Richards preaches at Providence Baptist Church in Vale, N.C.
Worley preaches at Providence Road Baptist Church, in nearby Maiden, N.C.
The Charlotte Observer reported that the FBI and ATF have determined that the Providence Baptist Church fire in Vale was arson. But the authorities haven’t said anything about a possible motive — or mistaken identity.
Richards received an urgent call at 2 a.m. after a firefighter, who is a member of his church, responded to the blaze.
The fire started near the boiler in the church basement, which is destroyed, Richards said.
Firefighters stopped the blaze from spreading too far beyond the basement, but the smoke poured upstairs, seeping into anything made of fabric and turning every light surface black. All of it, the pastor said, has to be fixed or replaced.
Outside, Richards said, investigators found a ski mask.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, and police have not announced any arrests or suspects to Richards or the public.
And recent cases of misdirection — where suspected hate crimes were eventually found to be perpetrated by people from the victimized communities — have given church leaders and investigators a reason to keep an open mind about possible motives and suspects.
“Anyone can use spray paint,” Richards said. “And anyone can set fire to a boiler.”
There are a lot of North Carolina churches — and streets and subdivisions — with “Providence” in their names.
The word means “divine guidance or care” and speaks of God’s “power sustaining and guiding human destiny,” according to Merriam-Webster’s.
Providence Baptist Church is on Providence Church Road.
Providence Road Baptist Church is on Providence Mill Road.
Not surprisingly, people have confused the two Catawba County churches before.
Every now and then, when Worley says something particularly provocative, or something about him is published (like this HuffPost list of pastors calling for the death of LGBT people), Richards gets nasty phone calls.
His reply, he said, is simple: Wrong guy, wrong church.
“I don’t do that,” he said of anti-gay sermons. “I’m a more positive person. There’s all kinds of sins. And I’m not opposed to any one of them more than the others.
“We’ve got people that come to our church that have an alternative lifestyle, just like we’ve got folks that come here that’s living together without being married. The people here don’t scream and bellow and spit. We just have a good Bible study.”
Worley did not respond to messages left at his home and church.
A woman who answered his home number hung up upon hearing that the call was from a Post reporter.
Setting fire to houses of worship, especially in the South, is reminiscent of painful discriminatory moments in U.S. history.
The 16th Street Baptist Church fire, which killed four girls and injured many others in 1963, drew national attention to the civil rights movement. The Birmingham, Ala., church had been a meeting place for civil rights leaders.
Some intentionally set church fires in recent months have been identified as hate crimes; but others have been outed as cases of misdirection.
When a black church in Greenville, Miss., was set on fire last year — and the words “Vote Trump” were spray-painted outside — the suspected hate crime made national headlines. But authorities later charged an African American parishioner with intentionally setting the fire in the weeks before the 2016 presidential election.
“We do not believe it was politically motivated,” Mississippi Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney told the Associated Press. “There may have been some efforts to make it appear politically motivated.”
In Houston, authorities said the person who set fire to a mosque on Christmas Day was a Muslim who prayed there several times a day.
After Monday’s early-morning fire in North Carolina, Richards said his church will temporarily hold services in a fellowship hall undamaged by the flames. Repairs will start shortly; the church is also installing security cameras outside.
Richards said he is already mulling themes for Sunday’s sermon — the first scheduled service after the fire.
He’ll thank God that none of the firefighters were hurt trying to save the church, he said.
And he’ll pray for whoever set the fire.
He hopes whoever is responsible for the conflagration and the graffiti hears the prayer in person.
“I wish the people would come in and see what kind of church we actually are,” he said.