9/20/2007 - Touched By The Flame: Pastor Of Burned Church And Mother Of Arsonist Talk About Redemption
It was an unlikely pair who shared the pulpit at Judson College's weekly chapel on Sept. 18. Dr. Jim Parker is pastor of the Ashby Baptist Church in Brierfield, the second of nine Alabama churches burned by arsonists in February, 2006. Kim Cloyd is the mother of Matthew Cloyd, one of three college students who confessed to the church burnings.
Matthew is now in federal prison in Oakdale, La.
"Jim Parker is my hero," Cloyd said. "I met him at a dinner we were invited to at Birmingham Southern College after the arrests, and he's been our friend ever since. His church was the first one we visited to pray with the parishioners and to ask their forgiveness."
Parker began the service by telling of the phone call he received in the early morning of Feb. 3. He drove to Ashby and assisted firefighters, but by 8 a.m., the church was a total loss. Parker learned that five churches burned that day. Four additional churches were burned the following Thursday. Federal investigators began their search for clues and their manhunt concluded on March 7 when ATF officers knocked on the Cloyd's door in suburban Birmingham.
"They asked to see our dark SUV," Cloyd said. "I explained that it belonged to our son and he'd be home at 6. They returned and remained for 18 hours. We cooperated fully and they took evidence from our home. Later our son was arrested for his part in the crime."
Investigators traced tire tracks from one of the churches to those on Matthew Cloyd's SUV. The tires had been purchased in his mother's name.
Matthew and two companions confessed to their crimes. He received a federal sentence of eight years after which he will return to Alabama to complete a two-year sentence in state prison.
Parker told of the conflicting emotions he and his congregation felt. "We were disturbed, of course," he said. "The men of my church kept in touch with me constantly for those 30 days thinking my life might be in danger. But after the arrests, God gave us an opportunity. C. S. Lewis once said that forgiveness is a lovely idea until you have someone to forgive! We could learn how to put forgiveness into practice. We could be bitter or get better by forgiving. The Bible speaks of the 'ministry of reconciliation' and we had a chance to minister."
One way Parker ministered was by requesting a visit with the three arsonists. Because they were in federal custody this was difficult, but he persisted and was given 15 minutes with each of them. "I told them God will forgive them if they ask him, and we forgive them, too," he said.
Parker was also an advocate for leniency in sentencing. He found a verse in Exodus that prescribes restitution if a person burns another's grain field and no one is injured (22:6). In personal meetings with Alabama Attorney General Troy King and Fourth Circuit District Attorney Michael Jackson, he urged them to consider restitution in lieu of so much jail time.
Initially prosecutors noted that federal guidelines allowed a five year sentence for each of the nine churches. "Having these boys in prison for 45 years wouldn't help anyone," Parker argued.
Parker said the tragedy his church experienced brought about a blessing from God. "We built a larger facility that we needed," he said. "And we learned again that the church is much more than a building. The morning of the fire someone noted we'd lost our church. One of our members, Barbara Edwards, spoke up. 'Our building's gone, but our church is still here,' she said."
Cloyd, too, said her life and that of her family had changed forever. "We were the typical American family until March 7 when everything shattered," she said. "Everyone liked Matthew. He never met a stranger. He was never in trouble before and had a scholarship to college."
Cloyd and her husband, Dr. Michael Cloyd, felt compelled to visit the affected churches and talk with members. Beginning with their visit to Ashby, they continued until they completed this task, and are in process of visiting all nine again as the new buildings are dedicated.
"We called the pastors and told them we'd like to come," she explained. "And we requested no media. These were private gatherings. We met wonderful, loving Christian friends, many of whom told us their stories of personal struggles."
Cloyd told her student audience they represented the future and must make wise decisions. "My son made some terrible choices under the influence of alcohol and drugs. I hope you will respect yourself enough not to be talked into doing something you know to be wrong. Learn to say 'no.' Ultimately you answer to God. Jim Parker told Matthew to 'take the high road' from now on. I want you to do that, too."
Cloyd said her son is doing landscape work in prison and continuing his education through an extension program with LSU. "I deserve to be here," Matthew told his parents. "I will pay for my sins, and then I'll be home."