Preliminary findings from an investigation of a fire at the Vietnamese International Baptist Church of Philadelphia indicate it was accidental, despite reports from conservative media sites blaming protests following the police killing of Walter Wallace Jr.
A fire is usually referred to the Fire Marshal’s Office when officials suspect it to be suspicious, said Cpl. Jasmine Reilly, a police spokesperson. However, there were no other reported fires on that block and it is not being investigated as arson, Reilly said. The Fire Marshal’s Office is still investigating the exact cause, said fire department spokesperson Kathy Matheson.
This story has been spreading on conservative media sites after the Baptist Press, a Nashville-based news service covering the Southern Baptist Convention, first reported on the fire Wednesday, with the headline “Vietnamese Baptist Church burns amid Philadelphia unrest.” The initial story made a direct connection between the fire and the protests following the shooting of Wallace, a 27-year-old Black man whose family says was experiencing a mental-health crisis.
Breitbart, a conservative website that was previously run by former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, published a story quoting several paragraphs from the Baptist Press under the headline: “Vietnamese Baptist Church Burned in Philadelphia During Black Lives Matter Riots.” The conservative outlet the Daily Caller also cited the Baptist Press in its story, with the headline “Vietnamese Baptist Church Burns During Philadelphia Protests.”
Though the Baptist Press has since updated its story to clarify that the fire is under investigation by the city’s Fire Marshal’s Office, Breitbart and the Daily Caller have not.
Head pastor Philip Pham is uncomfortable with the new media attention and does not want the church fire to be used as “a weapon to fight in the political battlefield.”
“That was not what I intend to do. I want people to remember that we are one nation, one people who love one another and want the best for one another," Pham said. “I don’t want any confusion. I don’t want any group to hate another.”
The police killing of Wallace in West Philadelphia has sparked protests against racism and police brutality. Property damage and burglaries were reported throughout the city, primarily in locations far from the protests, with Port Richmond hit especially hard.
The fire department was dispatched to the church in the Crescentville neighborhood around 6:42 p.m. Tuesday, finding heavy smoke through the roof of the church, Matheson said. The fire was under control by 7:16 p.m. and one firefighter suffered a minor injury. The blaze occurred as hundreds were gathering at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia — 10 miles away — to protest Wallace’s death, but no organized protest activity was reported near the church that night.
Pham said a man at an auto parts store across the street told Pham that he saw a small group of “kids throw flammable chemicals on the roof.” Employees at the auto store Friday said they did not see the fire and recommended calling a coworker who may have witnessed it. That person did not respond to requests for comment.
Pham said he was first worried about hard drives inside the church. The hard drives contain more than 15 years worth of information about community members the church helps with things like immigration paperwork and taxes. Recently, he said the church has helped people apply for pandemic unemployment assistance. Fortunately, the hard drives were unharmed.
Still, it does not seem like the church’s insurance will be enough to cover all of the damages, Pham said. The inside of the church is “destroyed,” he said. About 30 people have been using the space for socially distanced services, while others participate via Zoom. There is a GoFundMe, and money raised will go toward reconstructing the stage, the pastor’s office, and the childrens' room.
“It hurts a lot financially and spiritually,” Pham said. “I really need people to pray for us.”