VALE, NC (WBTV) - The FBI and ATF have determined the fire that started at a church in western Catawba County has been ruled as arson.
The fire began in the rear basement area of Providence Baptist Church where Sunday school classes and a nursery are located. Just outside the back door and on a bus garage a few feet away was a spray painted message reading "Anti-Gay Hate Group."
It apparently was directed at the church itself. Church members say they cannot understand why they would be targeted.
"We do not hate anyone," said Kevin Whitener.
Pastor Ernie Richards says extreme attitudes are not preached in his church and everyone is welcome and said whoever wrote the graffiti and possibly set the fire needs to know that.
"I would love to talk with them, pray with them," he said.
Authorities are not releasing many details. They have not classified it as a hate crime as of Monday evening but are investigating it.
The basement area where the fire began sustained heavy damage and the sanctuary above it suffered smoke damage.
Some church members speculated that this was a case of mistaken identity. Another Catawba County church with a similar name has openly expressed attitudes against the LGBT community.