Arson Determined as Fire Cause at Church With Congregation of South Sudan Immigrants

Arson was determined as the cause of a fire set at the historic Harlem Baptist Church, in Kansas City, Missouri, that now serves a congregation predominantly made up of immigrants from South Sudan, an official said.

A federal investigation is now underway after authorities determined the blaze was intentional, as setting a fire in a house of worship is a federal crime, Jason Ham of the Kansas City office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the Kansas City Star.

Ham urged members of the community with any information about the incident to come forward to assist the investigation.

"We've recovered some very strong evidence, but anytime the community has information that they can share with us, it makes the investigation move that much more swiftly and give this church an opportunity for justice and an opportunity for healing," Ham said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Harlem Church Fire
John Ham of the Kansas City office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the Kansas City Star that authorities have determined that the blaze at the Harlem Baptist Church was intentionally set, making it a federal crime. This September 19 photo shows the historic Harlem Baptist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Robert A. Cronkleton/The Kansas City Star via AP

The fire at the church was discovered about 9:15 a.m. on Saturday. Arriving firefighters discovered that the front of the building and an area of stairs going to the basement were fully engulfed in flames, and they determined that's where the fire started.

One firefighter had to be rescued after the stairway collapsed. He was not injured. The church suffered heavy fire damage to the front, and smoke and water damage elsewhere.

The church was founded in 1907 as the Harlem Tabernacle Church. It is the last remaining original building of a non-incorporated community known as Harlem. It now serves as a gathering place for the United Christian Fellowship.

Pastor Gabriel Riak said the congregation has Black and white members, including Sudanese and Americans. He said he was grateful no one was in the building. KMBC reported.

Members are planning to restore the church, which sustained about $90,000 in damage, he said.

"But first, we do need your prayers. Because it's kind of a shock for all of us—even our kids who come here and worship with us, they are asking, 'Why, what happened?' And I don't know any answer to give them," Riak said.

"It was the center of social life for the community for 120 years," said Jason Withington of Kansas City, one of the church's trustees. "To find out that somebody intentionally set the fire, it's just heartbreaking."

The church had ceased operation as the Harlem Baptist Church in 2005. Withington said it sat vacant until the Sudanese congregation started gathering there about a dozen years ago. It still has a sign outside saying "Harlem Baptist Church."

Withington and his father were baptized at the church. His grandparents attended there for 60 years.

When he heard about the fire, Withington said he began to cry "because this church has meant so much to me and my family."

Fire Investigation File Image
A federal investigation is underway at a church in Kansas City, Missouri, after officials determined the cause of fire was arson. Authorities are urging members of the community with information to come forward to aid in the investigation process. Getty Images