Arson causes severe damage to Southbend UMC

By Amy Forbus

LONOKE COUNTY—An intentionally set fire caused severe damage to Southbend United Methodist Church Jacksonville early on the morning of Oct. 16.

The church’s 70-year-old sanctuary sustained heavy smoke damage, and the fellowship hall was gutted after thieves stole some sound equipment, then set two fires in the building before leaving.

Because deadbolt locks kept them from opening doors, they broke a window to enter the building, then used the American flag from the sanctuary to clear the rest of the glass out of the frame so they could fit the items through the opening.

The church, which has an average weekly attendance of 25 to 30, met for worship Sunday, Oct. 20, at the nearby South Bend Volunteer Fire Department. A number of area churches, both United Methodist and other denominations, also have offered meeting space while the congregation repairs the damage.

The Rev. Garren Hagemeier, who lives in Little Rock but has served this rural Lonoke County church since 1991, said members who live nearby were on the scene shortly after the fire department arrived.

Witnesses gave sheriff’s officers descriptions of people running away from the building carrying sound equipment.

The South Bend Volunteer Fire Department rallied its firefighters and arrived around 7 a.m.
“It didn’t take everybody very long to get here, and all we had was fire coming out the back, so we hit it,” said Mike Neemann, captain of the fire department.

“The fire department out here did a wonderful job,” said Michael Kindall, deputy chief of the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Department, who was on the scene to assist with gathering evidence. “They contained this fire and saved the church. They need to be commended for what they did.”

Suspect in custody 

Later on the day of the fire, Lonoke County Sheriff’s Office arrested Joseph Charles Yarberry, 19, on suspicion of arson, commercial burglary and theft of property. Officers recovered the stolen items from his vehicle. At Yarberry’s Oct. 18 court appearance, bond was set at $20,000. According to deputy prosecutor Ben Hooper of the Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney’s office, the projected date for Yarberry’s plea and arraignment is Dec. 2.

Criminal charges are pending against three juveniles, ages 14, 16 and 17, who were with Yarberry at the time of his arrest.

Hagemeier used the fire as an opportunity for evangelism, inviting the captain of the fire department to come to 9:45 a.m. worship in the building the department would be lending to the congregation the following Sunday.

The Rev. Dede Roberts, superintendent of the Central District, said that Southbend’s building was well insured, so the congregation will be financially able to make a plan to move forward.

For more photos of the fire at Southbend UMC, visit the Arkansas Conference’s Facebook page: