By Thomas Fields-Meyer
February 27, 2006 12:00 PM

Ashby Baptist Church felt like a second home to the Epperson family of Brierfield, Ala. Mom Reva met her husband there as a 14-year-old girl and, like two of her sisters, got married there. Just 10 days after her birth, Epperson’s daughter Lori, now 16, played Baby Jesus in the church’s annual Christmas pageant. But now the small country church is gone. “You’re just used to going up that road and the church was always there,” says Lori. “Now it’s not.”

Flames engulfed the Eppersons’ 131-year-old church in the early hours of Feb. 3, part of an apparent series of attacks that, on the same day, claimed four other Alabama churches in an 8-mile patch of Bibb County, south of Birmingham. Four days later, four other Baptist sanctuaries were torched, and by Feb. 11 the number of damaged or destroyed churches had reached 10. As authorities, certain of arson, stepped up their search (see box), parishioners gathered to worship in borrowed or temporary quarters—and wondered who could be responsible.

More than just places of worship, say congregants, the Alabama churches were in many cases the social centers of their small and remote communities. Terri Morrison, 44, wiped away tears as she gingerly walked through the charred remnants of Rehobeth Baptist Church in Lawley, where she and all four of her daughters were baptized. “I felt like this was the murder of an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while,” says the former Bible-school teacher.

Adversity inspired acts of generosity as neighboring churches opened their doors to congregations suddenly without homes. In Antioch, predominantly white Antioch Baptist Church—lightly damaged by a fire—opened its doors to members of Pleasant Sabine Missionary Baptist, a black church destroyed on Feb. 3. It was the first time in memory that the two Baptist congregations—only 200 yards apart—had ever prayed together. “Unknowingly they did us a favor,” Wardell Harris, a third-generation Pleasant Sabine member, says of the perpetrators. “Because they brought people together.”

James Posey, minister of Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Boligee, a congregation near the Mississippi border that lost its wood-frame building in a Feb. 7 blaze, says he knows one thing about the perpetrators: These are people “not smart enough to know you can’t stop the church.” Adds Rick LeCroy, an Alabama state game warden based in Bibb County: “The fire that’s waiting for them is a whole lot hotter than the ones they set.”