VALE, N.C. - The Catawba County Sheriff's Office said that a fire early Monday morning at a Catawba County church has been ruled arson and that patrols have been stepped up around the area.
An accelerant was used to start the fire, the sheriff said.
Church member Jerry Whisnant keeps watch at the place where his family has worshiped for generations.
He's making sure nothing else happens to the church
"Didn't think anybody would be crazy enough to try to burn a church down,” Whisnant said. “Think they're the lowest form of life. You can't get lower than picking on the dead, or trying to burn a church."
At least eight fire departments from three counties worked to put out the 2-alarm fire at Providence Baptist Church in Vale.
Fire crews were called around 2 a.m. to the church just southwest of Hickory and found flames and smoke coming from the building.
No injuries were reported, but investigators called the fire suspicious after they found what they described as “anti-gay” vandalism behind the church, a few feet from where the fire is believed to have started.
Channel 9 reporter Dave Faherty saw the message "anti-gay hate group" spray-painted on the sidewalk behind the church as well as at the back of the building and in a bus garage.
Church members and people in the community gathered to pray Monday evening, refusing to let the fire break their spirit.
“It’s wonderful -- not all church members, just community members and people who have been touched by this church,” church member Melanie Whitener said. "Such a blessing to see all those that have come out.”
Channel 9 was allowed inside the church Tuesday and could see a lot of damage.
Investigators believe the fire started downstairs, below the sanctuary, which also suffered smoke damage. There was also damage to a room that was used to teach Sunday school to toddlers.
The church's pastor told Channel 9 that whoever left the message, he holds no ill will toward them.
"Our prayers are for them because we love people," said pastor Ernest Richards. "With our love for them, regardless of what they've done, we're still going to have that compassion for people."
The fire was particularly tough on some of the volunteer firefighters who attend the church.
The pastor said the church has had to change its phone number before because people have gotten Providence Baptist Church confused with Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden.
In 2012, Channel 9 reported that someone left suspicious white powder at the Maiden church after a sermon by Rev. Charles Worley, who suggested gay people be locked behind electric fences and be left to die.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI and local authorities are investigating the fire.
"What are people thinking now?” Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid said. “Look at what's happened in the United States, between church shootings and burnings now. If it turns out to be a hate crime, the FBI is already involved."
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