Fire investigators in Marshall County continued Wednesday looking for clues to determine who may have set fire and vandalized the First Pentecostal Church of Holly Springs, a fire some believe may be arson-related due to graffiti left on the ground at the church’s entrance.
The church was destroyed last week and the event went viral nationally because the church, led by Pastor Jerry Waldrop, had been in the middle of a legal fight with the City of Holly Springs about coronavirus restrictions the city placed with COVID-19’s onset.
Waldrop and First Pentecostal Church had been defying the city’s emergency order and was holding services in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Reports were that Holly Springs officers entered the church’s Easter Sunday services and ordered it shut down. Police were also called on another occasion when the congregation met in defiance of the city’s order, which stated that “under no circumstances shall nonessential businesses, agencies, or organizations have any gatherings of people in any facility within city limits.”
Churches were initially considered nonessential under the city’s order, which an attorney for the church said it was in conflict with Gov. Tate Reeves, who put churches on the list of essential activities with CDC gathering and distancing recommendations.
“Right now, all I really say is that it is still under investigation with several different entities,” said Leland Reed, Marshall County Fire Investigator and Holly Springs Assistant Fire Chief on Wednesday. “Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, the State Fire Marshal’s Office, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Explosives, and the FBI are involved. That’s all I’m able to say right now.”
Another indication that arson is behind last week’s fire comes from the message spray painted on the ground in front of the church that read, “bet you stay home, hypokrits (sp).”
Waldrop has been the church’s pastor for more than 30 years and he claimed the city’s order was more restrictive than the intent of the order issued by Reeves. It claims the city’s order was a restriction of free speech and their ability to worship.
The city claimed there were about 40 members inside the church and were not practicing social distancing when officers entered the Easter service and a Bible study.
The lawsuit filed against the city by the church claims otherwise, that it was practicing social distancing and complying with all health requirements.
The battle between First Pentecostal Church and the city has been tense since the emergency order was first issued on March 23 and signed by Mayor Kevin Buck, an order that allowed police to enforce it. In one instance, Waldrop and city officials were seen embroiled in a confrontation at the city’s Walmart store.
U.S. District Judge Michael Mills opted to not allow the church’s request to block the order. In his opinion, Mills wrote the church was proceeding in an excessively reckless and cavalier manner and with insufficient respect for the enormity of the health crisis which the COVID-19 crisis represents.” An appeals court later granted the church’s request to be able to worship in person and the city followed with its revision to recommend, instead of requiring, the suspension of in-person services. Drive-in services have since been allowed to take place.
Reeves came out after the fire to condemn the incident, stating on social media, “I am heartbroken and furious. In Mississippi, a church was just burned to the ground. They had been trying to open services. What is this pandemic doing to us? We need prayer for this country.
Authorities are offering a reward for information about the fire.