Russell Memorial UMC Re-Defines “Church Burning”

Date Posted: 1/3/2011

The two men who pled guilty to burning down Russell Memorial UMC are facing life in prison. The church itself is facing new life, which began on February 4 – when the fire was set.


“I knew at 5:45, when I got the phone call that the arsonists had gotten us,” said Larry Turner, the church’s lay delegate to the Texas Annual Conference. “It seemed to change our whole church immediately. While firemen were fighting fire on one side, the church members were setting up the fellowship hall for Sunday service. There was no need to just watch them…So, before the fire was even out, the fellowship hall was ready for worship.”


While Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister admitted to setting fire to Russell Memorial’s  structure, they are likely unaware that they set the people afire as well. The spiritual fire was still burning Thanksgiving weekend, when more than 400 people participated in the sanctuary dedication of Russell Memorial UMC. Many commented that the high point of the service was when the former pastors came forward to assist in the dedication of the altar and baptismal font.


According to an Associated Press report in the Dallas Morning News on December 16, the East Texas church arsonists pled guilty to the federal crime of setting fires that damaged or destroyed 10 churches. (Church arson can carry a sentence of up to life in prison; sentencing is set for January 10, 2011.)


Since the time of these crimes, the church has been on a journey to rebuild. The journey has been blessed by God and practically free of obstacles. “Aside from the pain of the fire itself, I have a hard time labeling anything related to this experience (at least since I arrived in June) as an obstacle or difficulty,” said Rev. Billy Watson. “It has been readily apparent God has been with us throughout the process, as the building committee arrived at consensus fairly easily on all decisions, work schedules fell right in place, insurance adjustors bent over backwards, and gifts came in beyond our expectations.”


To date, more than $126,000 in gifts and donations have been received. The total cost of  constructing the new sanctuary and remodeling the administrative building was around $1.5 million.


“Between insurance and gifts, the church will incur no debt whatsoever – Praise God!” Watson said. The outpouring of support, both from within and beyond the Texas Annual Conference, as

well as from within and beyond the United Methodist Church, has been amazing, Rev. Watson

said. One of the greatest gifts had no price tag. “There were prayers that came in from all over the world via the internet – that brought us together,” Turner said. “We were determined that it would make us stronger.”


Watson also noted the level of commitment to the church and sacrifice of Russell Memorial’s members, saying they symbolize that “it is a great new day at Russell Memorial UMC.” “To a person, everyone I have spoken to within the church and in the community believes this congregation is stronger as a result of this experience,” Watson said. “We are unified. There is a sense of excitement and expectation. We recognize we have been blessed and know God intends to use us now to be a blessing to our community.”


The Journey

After the fire, the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearm’s Bureau) occupied the church for two weeks, followed by insurance adjusters for another week. Demolition started just after that. Rebuilding began the last week of April – under the leadership of Weldon George, a construction

business retiree who leads the church’s building committee. The work was completed the first week of October.


The timetable was greatly aided, when the existing slab from the old sanctuary was able to be

preserved. Watson said compression tests showed it to be stronger than most new foundations. It was strong enough to hold one final worship service of closure on the slab, which former pastor Rev. E.B. Beasley led.


Another blessing and more evidence that God was at work beforehand at Russell Memorial UMC, was the insurance audit and update that was conducted within the past  year. The audit included an inventory of everything in the church and a walk-through filming, both of which proved to be invaluable in this process, Watson said.


The sanctuary was rebuilt essentially as it was, with a few updates and improvements. A new audio visual loft was added in the back of the sanctuary, above the narthex. (The former sound booth took space away from two back pews). A vestibule was added so exterior doors don’t open directly on the narthex, where it was hard to regulate temperature. And, a new suite of bathrooms was added to bring the facility up to present codes (this was covered by insurance, as our policy included restoration to code).


The administration building, which was damaged in the fire but not destroyed, received new ceramic tile floors and new drop ceilings throughout all hallways; everything was repainted; the office and reception area was completely redesigned; the roof was replaced and a drive through with covered drop off for the sanctuary and additional parking spaces were added. “As to the greatest blessing, I would say the overall experience itself has been such a blessing,” Watson said. “It has been amazing to see every little detail fall in place, to know that things could not have happened as they have without God actively involved in the process.”


Rev. Billy Watson and Eleanor L. Colvin contributed to this report.