Authorities are investigating a fire early Monday at a predominantly Black church in Springfield as a potential hate crime.
Investigators are working to rule out any accidental causes, but they believe the fire at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Presbyterian Church may have been intentionally set and possibly linked to three other small fires in the neighborhood in the past three weeks.
“It’s a church that burned at nighttime, so it’s a potential hate crime,” Springfield fire Commissioner BJ Calvi told reporters, when asked why the Federal Bureau of Investigation was involved.
The church posted on Facebook Monday morning: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. Psalm 34:18″
Firefighters were first called to the church at 14 Concord Terrace around 5 a.m. When they arrived, flames had taken over the basement and first floor. It took about an hour to bring the fire under control.
The church is now unusable, having suffered more than $100,000 worth of damage, but it’s not a total loss, said spokesman Captain Drew Piemonte. The fire damaged the rear of the building, but the sanctuary was more affected by water than smoke.
Officials are looking for traces of accelerants used to start the fire, but so far haven’t found any. A dog trained to detect accelerants walked through the property twice, Calvi said.
Now, officials are canvassing the area, asking for information on what may have caused the fire and whether anyone saw anything suspicious between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. in the area. Officials said there is a $5,000 reward for information to help identify the fire’s cause.
“At this time, we have not identified anybody, but any help the community could give would be greatly appreciated,” Calvi said.
The three previous small fires within blocks of the church were not classified as arson fires. They were considered “nuisance fires,” meaning their causes were officially undetermined, said Piemonte. In all three cases, firefighters arrived to burning trash or cardboard beside vacant properties, he said. Such fires are not unusual, though the frequency in recent weeks had increased, he said.
But criminal investigators are concerned about possible racist motives in Monday’s fire. It’s reminiscent of an arson attack by three white men in November 2008, hours after Barack Obama was elected the country’s first Black president, that destroyed a Black church in Springfield. After four years of construction, the church was just about to move into its new $2.5 million chapel in a quiet wooded neighborhood.
The three men were charged with arson, civil rights violations, and destruction of religious property in the attack on the Macedonia Church of God in Christ. They were convicted and sentenced to four to 14 years in prison.
The fire also comes as Black churches have recently been targeted. In mid-December, protesters attending a pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C., tore “Black Lives Matter” signs from two historically Black churches and burned them in the street.
On Christmas, a fire severely damaged the Prince Hall Masonic Temple in Providence, a historically Black fraternal organization that previously housed the local NAACP branch. Authorities are still investigating the cause.
Monday’s case is under investigation by state and local arson investigators, with assistance from the FBI, and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.
The church was built in 1950, city records show. The Martin Luther King Presbyterian congregation, which was established in 1979, has about 50 members. They had just raised enough money to replace the building’s roof shortly before Christmas, according to WWLP-TV.
Anyone with information about the fire can call the arson hotline at 1-800-682-9229.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.