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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 6, 2003

Fire fails to halt services at church

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Advertiser Religion & Ethics Writer

When the Rev. Vaughn Beckman gave his sermon last weekend at First Christian Church, the first after an Aug. 27 arson caused more than $150,000 worth of damage, he talked about how touched he was by the "concern poured forth."

This Sunday, however, it will be back to faith business as usual, with a sermon on Jesus' parables.

"We've received unbelievable support from the religious community," the senior pastor said this week, noting that he received more than 500 e-mails from across the country.

Several ministers from other denominations offered the use of their churches, but Beckman said he felt it was important to his 75 members to meet in their pavilion. They will be back in the church tomorrow, he said.

"The structure's in good shape, though it will need to be repainted," said Beckman.

While its insurance deductible was only $250, the church will have out-of-pocket costs to pay by way of depreciation costs for new Bibles, school supplies, its piano, some tables and chairs, as well as flooring and lights, he said. He estimating that to be about $10,000.

Beckman, an outspoken gay-rights activist, wants authorities to fully investigate the cause of the fire: "I want to make sure they are looking at this seriously."

Investigating a church fire is a high priority, said Tracy Elder, the resident agent in charge of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Hawai'i.

"Church fires are taken very seriously by all agencies," he said. "Depending on seriousness of the evidence, it goes right to the director. "

However, he said, "we have not made a determination that this is a hate crime. Leads are pointing (toward a personal dispute). ... But there's the possibility that it could be."

A Honolulu police arson investigator said the case is still under investigation, and lab results on whether a flammable liquid was used are expected in about a week.

"The church could have been just a venue where a fire began," said Colin Shigemasa. "It's not necessarily that a hate crime was involved."

One of the first 10 calls Beckman received after the fire was from Hakim Ouansafi, president of the Muslim Association of Hawai'i, whose mosque last October was littered with hundreds of hate leaflets. The FBI is continuing its investigation of that incident as a hate crime.

Reach Mary Kaye Ritz at 525-8035 or e-mail mritz@honoluluadvertiser.com.