Pastor visits arsonist who torched church

RESURRECTED: Feilding Baptist Church pastor Allen Hince and his congregation have forgiven Feilding firebug Richard Elliott, inset, for an arson attack on their church.
RESURRECTED: Feilding Baptist Church pastor Allen Hince and his congregation have forgiven Feilding firebug Richard Elliott, inset, for an arson attack on their church.

From the ashes of an arson attack that destroyed a Feilding church has arisen forgiveness and reconciliation with the man responsible.

The Bowen St Baptist Church community centre was torched in January 2011 by Feilding firebug Richard David Elliott, a security guard tasked with patrolling the town's CBD between 9pm and 3am each night.

Elliott was jailed for seven years after lighting a string of fires, including two at the church, which caused nearly $1.8 million worth of damage.

While the attack devastated the church's congregation, Pastor Allen Hince has reached out to Elliot in prison, visiting him regularly and offering him solace.

"Human nature can be quite fickle, and there were circumstances that caused this young guy to do what he did," Mr Hince said.

"Now what he did was very wrong, and he knows that, but he found he was just doing it, and couldn't stop, and I think we're all susceptible to that type of thing.

"What has come out of that is he has shown true remorse for what he has done and, as a church, we have acknowledged our forgiveness towards him."

Maybe it's in the nature of a pastor to look beyond past discretions, Mr Hince said, but he understands why Elliot did it and doesn't blame him.

"It doesn't matter who we are, if we were in the same situation, with the same circumstances, with the same stresses, with the same outlooks, we would probably all do the same.

"And, when we confront somebody who's done that kind of damage, whether it's been theft or arson, what we can do is offer them the thing that they're longing for the most, and that's acceptance and forgiveness.

"It's not to judge and say 'You're this and I'm that', but to say, 'Actually, we're all human'."

And today the Feilding Baptist Church is holding an open day to celebrate its rebuilt parish.

"In those first months there was a lot of emotion. Although the buildings were old, they were filled with memories, and the initial destruction knocked people over.

"But then we had to start the process of clearing the site, rebuilding and moving on."

The auditorium's roof was smoke damaged, the walls and floors were water damaged and the church's community hall, attached at the back of the building, was left as a blackened, burnt-out pile of rubble.

The Sunday service and its 180-strong congregation were moved off-site, and the church's youth groups, as well as boys' brigade, girls' brigade and a senior citizens group, were all rehoused.

Mr Hince said the congregation spent two years and $180,000 restoring the church, and forgiving Elliott was part of that process.

"I've actually built up quite a connection with him, and we get along really well."

The church's new 600sqm expansion has a state-of-the-art community centre with three rooms, moveable walls, revamped kitchen facilities, and a new sound system.

It's satisfying to see the church finished, but there have been bigger life lessons from Elliott's series of arson attacks, Mr Hince said.

"There has been enormous strain and stress through this whole process, and people are tired, but as a community we've realised we depend more on others than we do on material things.

"They have their place, and we've gone to a lot of lengths to create what we've got here, but it's not what determines our identity or who we are. You cannot live on holding grudges, it only causes bitterness in the end."

The official opening starts with a walk-through at 1pm with formal proceedings, a short service and afternoon tea starting at 2.30pm.

The Manawatu Standard