Federal agents joined city police and fire officials in investigating a suspected arson fire that damaged a Portland church early Sunday, and church officials believe it could have been racially motivated.

The fire started between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m. Sunday on the front exterior of the Portland New Church on Stevens Avenue, a busy thoroughfare in the mostly residential Deering Center neighborhood.

It appeared to be set in an area where a Black Lives Matter sign had been posted, according to Lorraine Kardash, the church pastor and building manager. The sign, which had been displayed outside the church for at least a year, was later found by investigators in bushes near the church.

Neighbors who spotted the fire called for help and rushed across the street with buckets of water to try to put it out, Kardash said. They did not see any suspects at or near the scene, she said.

Kardash said investigators told her they believe the fire was intentionally set. Damage was contained to the front of the building and inside the entryway and isn’t expected to disrupt religious services or other activities at the community gathering spot.

The Portland police and fire departments are investigating the fire, as is the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Portland Fire Capt. John Brennan said it is standard procedure to involve the ATF in investigating fires at churches.

Brennan said the department was notified of the fire around 1:45 a.m., and firefighters extinguished the flames within minutes of arriving at the church. There were no injuries. He did not have an estimated cost of the damage and said investigators were still determining the cause.

The Rev. Anne Gresinger, president of the church council, said a diversity banner that had been hanging inside the church, which is used by community groups, had been removed some time in the last several months. She didn’t know whether that might be connected to the fire.

“It certainly seems like someone is making a statement about not being OK with those things,” she said. “Hopefully, the investigation will clarify things. They are asking a whole lot of questions and talking to neighbors. We’re told they do have some leads, so we may learn something soon.”

Some neighbors were saddened to learn Monday evening that the fire might have been set. They questioned how anyone could damage a church that has become a vital community gathering spot for people of all backgrounds throughout Greater Portland.

COMMUNITY GATHERING SPOT

“It’s just horrendous,” said Robin Chason, who has lived across the street from the church for 20 years. “It’s a pretty little church. They rent it out. We’ve had birthday parties there and bridal showers and baby showers. This is a very welcoming community, so if that’s what happened, it’s just so sad.”

Patty Boone also lives across the street from the church. She slept through the commotion Sunday morning. She said the church is a busy place, regularly hosting dance classes, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and West African drum lessons.

“I find it hard to believe the fire was set,” Boone said. “It’s a great community spot.”

Kristine Hayes, another neighbor, was woken by the fire. She can’t imagine anyone setting fire to a church. She said residents nearby generally live and let live, pointing to the rainbow diversity flag displayed by a neighbor and the black-and-blue American flag she displays to show support for police.

“I’m a person of faith and I don’t agree with their beliefs, but I don’t think anybody would (set fire to the church),” Hayes said.

On Monday evening, the sound of rhythmic drumming flowed from the open front door of the church, where Namori Keita teaches West African drum lessons for an hour on Monday and Tuesday evenings.

If the fire was racially motivated, Keita had a theory about whoever set it.

“They have a problem and they can’t solve it, so they give it to others,” Keita said during a break in giving lessons.

Church leaders said they plan to repost the Black Lives Matter sign and are working with their insurance company to begin the process of assessing and repairing the damage.

They shared a few details about the fire on the church Facebook page and included a photo of the charred façade of the building.

“The face of the beloved Portland New Church was damaged by arson last night. Neighbors acted fast and doused the fire before major structural damage occurred,” the post said. “Speculation about the motive is fueled by the fact that the Black Lives Matter sign that was hanging outside by the door is now gone. This humble church has served as a meeting space for many people in Deering Center since 1910. We are saddened and angered by this hateful act.”

PEACE PICNIC PLANNED

Kardash said the church council met on Sunday to discuss the incident.

“There was a lot of concern, heartbreak, anger and feeling we need to respond to this and not just ignore it,” she said.

Gresinger is thankful for the support of the community and the neighbors who stepped in to help.

“We’re concerned about who it is that would have some kind of problem with the church, but on the other hand, it gives us the opportunity to really feel the embrace of the community,” she said.

The church is planning a peace picnic on Oct. 10 in the church yard. The interfaith community, police officers, firefighters and neighbors will be invited to gather as a community and stand up for diversity, Kardash said.

The Portland New Church was officially constituted on Aug. 21, 1831, by a group that had begun meeting to read and discuss the writings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish philosopher and theologian. The church was located on High Street during its early years. The current church building was completed in April 1910 as a parish hall, according to a history of the church posted on its website.

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