“We got two separate trailers here. Doing a temporary service for them to run the power to both of them. We’ve got a 400 amp service here. And it’s a lot of grunt work right now.”
His church was one of three in the county to burn completely to the ground, sanctuary, Sunday school, church hall. All of it, gone. But Bates says the soul of the church remains.
“All the members of the church makes up the church, not the building itself. So it’s just another place for the church to get together.”
A few miles down the road, at Old Union Baptist – which dates back to the 1860s, the damage wasn’t nearly as bad. But the steely resolve of its members, like Deacon Hilman Moses is the same.
Moses says the burnings don’t make much sense.
“Somebody needs to know the Lord is all I know. I don’t have no hard feelings against them or anything. I think it was just somebody out having a good time…burning churches. ‘Cause we haven’t done nothing to make nobody mad.”
Moses arrived just in time to put the fire out before it spread. The only things damaged in his church were a hard pine podium and table at the pulpit… and an American flag in the corner.
Now, Moses says, people are watching – his church… every church.
“Oh yeah. We’re keeping an eye out.”
And it’s that camaraderie – that shared spirit among neighbors, fellow worshipper or not – that’s prevailing in Bibb County.
It certainly is the topic of lunchtime conversation at the Twix and Tween Restaurant in Centreville, the county seat.
Along with pork ribs or an all-you-can-eat buffet, comes the salt and peppering of disbelief and astonishment.
Kristy Nichols and her husband Tim say through all the emotion, comes a united front.
“People have been keeping a closer eye on their neighbors’ churches. Not only their own but their neighbors churches as far as keeping anything like this from happening again. Hopefully.”
“You know with as many people watching and waiting and looking now, they gonna end up striking one of the churches and some church members are gonna be there waiting on them. Hopefully it’ll be soon.”
And if not church members waiting, then law enforcement. More than 100 local, state and federal agents are scouring the area – in Bibb County, and the other counties where church fires have happened. Tips, they say, are coming in all the time.
“We’ve got over a thousand names in our database just in this case.”
Jim Cavanaugh is Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. He says federal agents continue to chip away at hundreds of leads that may take the case in one direction or another.
“It’s like a wall of curtains…you know…and each time you find something out, you move one back… and behind it, there’s another one, and you move that one back and then there’s another one and you move that one back. So you keep going and going through. But eventually, in a big case, you’re going to get to the answer.”
Authorities think they can find the answers if they can find what eyewitnesses describe as a dark-colored SUV and two white men in their 20s or 30s seen leaving some of the fires.
They do know it’s been a while since the last church fire. And people in Bibb County say they’re doing everything they can to stop it from happening again.