Arson suspected at historic Iowa church

KEOKUK, Iowa (BP)--Investigators have not ruled out arson in an early morning fire that destroyed the educational wing and pastor's office of Bethany Baptist Church in Keokuk, Iowa, Sept. 19.

The Keokuk Fire Department was called to the 151–year-old historic structure at 1:30 a.m. and the structure was heavily damaged before firefighters brought the blaze under control at 4 a.m. The roof of the educational wing collapsed and smoke and water damage were extensive throughout the sanctuary. The pastor's study was destroyed and his library was deemed unsalvageable.

The state fire marshal's office said it is investigating the blaze as a suspicious fire and has not ruled out arson as the cause. Keokuk fire chief Mark Wessel said the fire was similar to a blaze in May at Keokuk's First Baptist Church that was determined to be arson. Keokuk fire officials were cooperating with the state officials and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is automatically called in for cases of church fires.

Bethany Baptist's pastor, Ronnie McLain, said the congregation is holding up but was shaken by the fire. "You don't understand the end of the matter 'til you get to the end of the matter" he said. "It may yet turn out to be a blessing."

The pastor said church members showed up for services in the parking lot on Sunday with tears in their eyes and hugs for each other. He preached on the building of two Israelite temples, pointing out that in both cases there was a congregation before the temple was built and after it was destroyed there was still a congregation.

The Baptist congregation received the historic church building as a gift from Keokuk's First Congregational Church when it was disbanding in 1994. The older congregation, which was made up of older people, didn't want to watch their historic building go to ruin, so they gave the building to the 4-year old Bethany Baptist Church.

The oldest section of the building was constructed in 1854. The sanctuary was completed in 1907. Bethany's 30 members had renovated parts of the building and were able to maintain the structure, despite the financial challenge it posed for the small congregation.

Church member Rob McKay, 44, said he has been a Christian only since June 2005 and started attending Bethany earlier in the summer. "These people are just like family to me," he said, adding that the building really "fit this congregation."

"The fellowship hall was used a lot by the church," he said, "And that's the part that burned first."

Darrell Rodger, a long-time member, said the congregation is very committed to missions support and the church building is only a tool to help them reach Keokuk and the world, but he acknowledged, "We will miss it."

On Sept. 21, the pastor and key leaders met with leaders of other churches in town to determine where the church will meet the following Sunday. First Baptist Church -- feeling a mutual kinship with the Bethany church following their experience with fire in May -- offered the use of their facilities, while a local bank offered the use of a nearby vacant church building.

"We will find a place to worship God," Pastor McClain said.

Baptist Convention of Iowa officials are working with the Great Rivers Baptist Association to help replace hymnals, Sunday school curriculum and other church supplies.

Richard Nations is publications editor for The Iowa Baptist, newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of Iowa (

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