CHARLOTTE, NC (Mark Price/The Charlotte Observer) - To the arsonist who set fire two years ago to east Charlotte's Briar Creek Baptist Church, the pastor has a message: "We forgive you, we're praying for you and we're not mad."
Pastor Kenneth Robinson says his congregation may even owe the culprit a thanks, because the $250,000 in damage caused by the fire so rattled the church that it was forced to make drastic changes.
The result of those changes was unveiled on Easter, when Briar Creek Baptist "re-missioned" itself as The Creek Church, with ambitious goals to reach beyond a single neighborhood, a single race or a single nationality.
"I have only been here 90 days," Robinson said, "and when I came here, the congregation was down to 15 people and it appeared the church was not going to last. It was raining in the sanctuary, actually raining. That fire magnified the church's lack of resources, lack of morale and lack of leadership."
The dwindling African-American congregation was forced to ask itself a lot of painful questions, he says, with the most important being: What is our mission?
On Sunday, a new mission was apparent as he preached to a multiracial crowd of about 100, including a growing number of people in the city's southeast Asian community. Robinson's message did not focus on the fire, or even the new name. Instead, he talked of the broader symbolism of what they had endured as a family, the purpose of struggle and the meaning of a "come-from-behind victory."
"The word today is 'victory,' " Robinson said in his sermon. "The devil thought he had killed us. He really helped us."
Investigators have yet to solve the mystery of who set the fire at the church in June 2015. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives even announced a $2,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person responsible.
The church's education building was completely destroyed and will need to be torn down, Robinson said. A campaign to rebuild is going to be launched in coming weeks.
Briar Creek was one of six predominantly black churches in the South to burn during that month in 2015, though not all of the fires were ruled arson. The arson at Briar Creek took on more significance due to its timing just days after the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., by Dylann Roof.
On Sunday, the church celebrated its new beginning with an Easter egg hunt that attracted dozens of children, many of them from immigrant families. Some of the eggs were filled with gift certificates and prizes, including a "golden egg" containing a special prize.
Robinson, who is a third-generation minister, says he comes to The Creek Church after having re-launched two other churches in the area, including one in Rock Hill.
Among the things he's most proud of at The Creek Church: It has partnered with four ethnic churches, which hold services on the church site: Bethesda Evangelical and Restoration Center, Charlotte Nepali Christian Fellowship, Charlotte Senthang Christian Church and Myanmar Community Church.
On average, about a half dozen new people are joining The Creek Church each Sunday, he says.