CONWAY, SC (WMBF) – Providence Church is starting to clean up what remains of the inside of its sanctuary after it was set on fire Christmas Eve; when the church's act of holiday kindness, police say, was returned with an act of arson and burglary.
From the outside, the church is almost normal-looking- you may not notice anything unusual driving by on Highway 501. If you come closer though, the stench of fire is consuming, and pieces of shattered glass cover the ground. But you can't even guess the extent of the damage until you step inside.
On the rainy Christmas Eve night, the call came in. Pastor Victor Crawford discovered his church, his livelihood and place of worship, was ablaze.
But things weren't adding up. Police determined it was arson. "It became very evident that we were dealing with, not just an accidental fire, but something that was on purpose," Crawford says.
First, Crawford says investigators could see where the fire was started. Police believe the suspect used paint cans. Then, expensive pieces of church equipment were missing when Crawford first peeked inside that night after the fire was put-out.
As the ash settled, investigators realized things behind the church were also off. "The investigators went back and found a gas can. And there were some tire tracks. And they were like 'What is this, is this normal?' and we were like 'No typically there's not a gas can,'"
Crawford says the tire tracks matched the tread of a truck belonging to a homeless man, Bobby Barfield, whom the church was allowing to stay in the shed behind out back.
On Tuesday, Crawford says Barfield made another request. "He told me that he needed a space for him and his kids to do Christmas, and that kind of thing. And so the church was able to get him a [hotel] room for a couple nights, get him some food money and some gas money and that kind of thing." The same night, he noticed a laptop missing from the church. Not wanting to jump to conclusions, he did not report it.
As things started to add up, Crawford was in disbelief. Investigators thought the missing items could be the key to figuring out who was behind the arson. The truck tire tread was all they needed.
"[Investigators] started putting things together, 'Do you know where he is, can we talk to him?'. And of course I knew where he was, because I had put him up for the night. If there's nothing there, there's nothing there. But if he took it, everything's closed. He can't get rid of it tonight. Let's go see if it's there. And the investigators and the detectives said 'yeah, that's a great idea, let's do it'. And, so they went down, and sure enough it was... the truck was full of the churches property."
Pastor Crawford says he has already forgiven Bobby Barfield, who is being held in J. Reuben Long Detention Center on charges of arson, burglary, and grand larceny.
While the items found their way back, the church is in no condition for service. Crawford doesn't know the future of the church, or where he will deliver his sermon this Sunday. His sanctuary remains destroyed with fire-streaked walls. Chairs are ruined.
Crawford asks believers to send prayers. He asks for spare chairs for anyone who has extra, and says he has been approached by members of the community about donations. That, he says, is not something he is seeking, but Conway National Bank has set up a "Providence Church Fire" fund, and donations can also be made on the churches website here: http://www.discoverprovidence.org/.
But Crawford is undaunted by the task before him. He says he forgives Barfield and would even sit down with him to talk. "At the end of the day, we'll recover. And we'll be stronger because of it."