Investigators are looking into whether a Mississippi church that was burned to the ground this week was deliberately targeted over its ongoing fight with local authorities over staying open during the coronavirus pandemic.
First Pentecostal Church in Holly Springs, MS, which typically ministers to 100-150 members, has been at the center of a lawsuit against the city, claiming three police officers disrupted both an Easter service, as well as a bible study session in mid-April, threatening to close church down for violating the state's stay-at-home orders.
Investigators that surveyed the fire damage done to the building this week, reportedly found graffiti reading "Bet you stay home now you hypokrits [sic]" as well as can of white spray paint nearby.
Speaking with NBC affiliate WMC5, longtime church paster Jerry Waldrop expressed shock and sadness at the suggestion that his congregation might have been targeted.
"We’ve tacked our brains and we have no idea,” Waldrop said. “No enemies that we know of. We don’t know anyone that we even think could be capable of doing something like this.”
Waldrop had previously been involved in a confrontation with city leaders over orders that excluded places of worship as "essential."
In a tweet responding to the suspected arson, Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves condemned the act, writing that he was "heartbroken and furious" and that "We need prayer for this country." Reeves did not mention the congregation's lawsuit.
Law enforcement does not currently have a suspect for the suspected arson, and is offering a reward for information about the fire.
"Hopefully, with the Lord’s help,” Marshall County Sheriff's Department Maj. Kelly McMillen told the New York Times, “we can get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.
According to WMC5, Waldrop is currently focused on rebuilding his community.
"We have a tight group that’s been faithful," he told the station. "So whatever means is necessary that’s what we’ll do."