'We will rebuild. We will go on,' says Jonathan Phillips, an Emmett pastor

Congregations gather at alternate sites Sunday, one day after arson fires ravage two churches.

kmoeller@idahostatesman.comApril 29, 2013 

EMMETT - Members of one Emmett church held Sunday services in a funeral home chapel - a location that felt appropriate given pervasive feelings of sorrow and loss, said First Baptist Church Pastor Lance Zagaris.

First Baptist Church was one of two Emmett churches damaged in early morning fires Saturday. The other was Community Bible Church about two blocks away.

"We don't have a death - but we have experienced a loss," Zagaris said.

As investigators from the FBI and U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives helped try to determine who set the fires and why, Zagaris and his counterpart at Community Bible Church, Pastor Jonathan Phillips, kept things in perspective.

"The Bible teaches us that the building isn't the church," Zagaris said during a pizza lunch with church members who embraced the situation with dark humor.

"We're the burnout Baptists, but we're not burned out," church member Dave Hodges joked.

"We're on fire for the Lord," his wife, Pam, added.

The congregation's 100-year-old brick building is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. It was ringed Sunday with yellow crime-scene tape, and a sign posted on the front door said the fire had been deemed an arson and a $5,000 reward is offered for information leading to a conviction.

Emmett is a tight-knit community of 6,500 about 30 miles northwest of Boise.

"The whole community is upset," said Gem County Sheriff Chuck Rolland, a member of Community Bible Church. "Let justice be served."

Emmett Fire officials, including Chief Shannon Crays, spent Sunday inside Community Bible Church's blackened interior looking for clues. Crays said investigators were not ready to release any information about the fires.

The fires occurred at about 4:30 a.m. Saturday. On Sunday, the two congregations carried on.

Community Bible Church members gathered at Emmett Middle School. Pastor Phillips arrived with a charred King James Bible in hand.

"This was spared in the fire," he said. "This was passed down to me from my father."

Phillips said his church's records in the basement offices did not fare as well. They were destroyed.

Insurance will cover the cost of repairing the building but it can't replace marriage, baptism, financial and other records.

Terry Gardner, 54, has been a lifelong member of Community Bible Church. He was called to the scene by a friend who works at a nearby doughnut shop.

"There were flames coming out of the basement windows," said Gardner, who provided building keys to firefighters.

Zagaris said the fire at First Baptist appeared to have started in the basement, too. The church's records were not stored there, so those weren't lost.

But the safe in his office was stolen, Zagaris said. It didn't have money, but it did have credit card information.

Phillips and Zagaris encouraged their flocks to embody their faith by praying for the person or persons who set their houses of worship ablaze.

"We will rebuild. We will go on," Phillips said in a powerful Sunday message full of hope, joy and even laughter.

On the bright side, Phillips said, one item lost in the fire won't be missed - "that confounded paper cutter is gone."

"Thank the Lord," he said.

Katy Moeller: 377-6413

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