PRAIRIE GROVE – On Sunday morning following a fire that destroyed the sanctuary of Illinois Chapel Baptist Church, members and guests sang God’s praises as they came to grips with why an arsonist had painted upside-down crosses, a pentagram and graffiti on their historic building before setting it ablaze.
It was a packed house Sunday following the fire as members gathered in the fellowship/youth hall where the church moved its services following the fire set in the early morning hours of Friday, April 20.
“One decision was made for baptism,” said Ron Lomax, director of missions for the Washington Madison Baptist Association, adding that Pastor Lynville Eaton told a group of pastors gathered for the association’s regular pastor/staff fellowship that there was some anger among the congregation “over what had been done to God’s house.”
“(But) what came out was a feeling that God was still in control and working things for good,” said Lomax.
“They prayed for the ones who set fire to the church (and) that they would discover the saving power of Jesus.”
James Darnell, a member of the church, told a local reporter, “It’s going to be OK. The sun’s shining, it’s a beautiful day (and) we’re going to rebuild. Things will be all right.”
The Saturday morning following the fire the Arkansas Baptist News was at the church for an interview and to take photos of the damage.
Eaton, pastor of Illinois Chapel for more than two years, was overcome by emotion as he shared about all the offers of help and prayer from the community and other area churches.
Eaton, who resides in Elkins, had been awakened by a sheriff’s deputy.
“They woke me up about 1 o’clock Friday morning, so it probably started about midnight,” he said. “When I got here, they had the fire out, but the Prairie Grove, Farmington (and) Lincoln fire departments did a marvelous job. The sheriffs’ deputies were here. Everybody did a marvelous job keeping it from more damage.”
Eaton said efforts of the firefighters kept the church’s fellowship/youth building from catching fire.
“This building here didn’t catch fire (thankfully),” said Eaton. “That’s where we are going to be having church. It’s not very big, but it will do.”
Eaton walked around the church grounds, inspecting damage.
“You can see right here where they cut that out; there was … right here was sprayed an upside-down cross,” said the pastor. “Right over there was a big circle; … I don’t know – I call them satanic circles. On this one over here, they put, ‘Hail Satan.’ Then they painted a face on the end of that one right there.”
The exact date when Illinois Chapel was organized was not immediately known, but it was sometime in the early 1900s.
“We had the piano tuned not long ago. The piano tuner said the piano was made in 1905,” said Eaton. “All of these pews are old pews, but they’re curved. It was just a unique old building, you know. They had a picture from 1914 of those (students) who used to go to school here. So it has been here a long time.”
About 30 people attend Illinois Chapel regularly on Sunday, said Eaton, adding, “We will rebuild. Exactly what is going to be determined on what the insurance has to say.”
Eaton said vandalism is uncommon in the rural area, which is a few miles outside Fayetteville.
“When I started coming out here, there were young people who would come out and park at night, and I would have to clean up after them,” said the pastor.
“I was talking to one of the sheriff’s deputies one day who was coming through here,” Eaton continued. “He said, ‘We’ll watch it,’ and boy, I haven’t seen anything since then. That’s been over a year.”
A bystander said to Eaton as he surveyed damage, “I have never attended church here, but I love this little church. I usually go this way to work. I have driven by it for 30 years. So sad.
“I just can’t imagine anybody doing this.”