Church members shocked by arson, search continues for suspect

WINSTON COUNTY, Miss. (WCBI) – Winston County investigators are trying to find the person that started a church fire.

Chief Deputy Keith Alexander says New Zion Baptist Church was intentionally set on fire.

The blaze was found about 7 a.m. Wednesday.

Alexander said the arsonist knocked out a window to get inside the church and then went to the pastor’s office.

That’s where two chairs were set on fire.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office and sheriff’s department are investigating.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with hate crime, racial, or anything like that, I just think someone came in the church for some reason and caused it,” said Alexander.

Alexander says the church’s groundskeeper found the fire.

If not for that man, the whole church could have went up in flames.

Investigators said the fire was contained in the pastor’s office and because the groundskeeper found the fire when he did, firefighters were able to just use a fire extinguisher to put out the flames.

“I’m the janitor here and I came this morning going to do some cleaning up this morning, and when I got here, that’s what happened, I found the church on fire,” said church member, Walter Ashford.

Hours later, the smell of smoke is still heavy in New Zion Baptist Church.

That smell is what caught Ashford’s attention when he pulled up to the church Wednesday morning.

“Do you think that was God’s timing?” WCBI asked.

“I know it was, yeah, I know it was. The Lord sent me by here.”

Members say this isn’t the first time arson sparked flames inside their church building.

“They rebuilt this one in 1991, so I’ve been a member when that other one got burnt down too,” said church member, Spurgeon Miller.

They say it happened back in the late 80’s on the same grounds, but this time, it cuts deeper because they’ve worked so hard building everything back up.

“This is our place of worship you know? You don’t want to see your church done this way, or anybody else’s church,” said church member, Willie Johnson.

“Whoever done this will do anything. You fool with God’s house, you’ll do anything, see what I’m saying? You just don’t do it, not God’s House, but I thank God, it could’ve been a lot worse. At least it’s still standing, Brother Ashford come just in time. God brought it all to plan and I’m glad he was here. At least we still have a church home. That way, we won’t have to have church out here in the parking lot,” said church member, Robert Miller.

The pastor is out-of-town this week and his office is where the fire started.

“The devil is busy in many ways, you know? You get an enemy anywhere you go, so you know, folks don’t care nothing about the church no ways these days. Everybody is out for themselves these days, but in the end, God is going to fix it all.”

The church has nearly 300 members.

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