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Hate crime arsonist sought while the church he set ablaze celebrates Christmas

Posted: 7:34 PM, Dec 24, 2012
Updated: 2012-12-24 19:34:22-05

(CLINTON HILL, BROOKLYN) — While salvage workers pulled fire-damaged debris from the entry hall and balcony of St. Luke and St. Matthew Church on Christmas Eve, a steady stream of volunteers — some five dozen of them — arrived at and departed from the Clinton Street house of worship to work at a church-supported event.  They were undeterred by an apparent act of hate, even though whoever carried it out is still at large, and could potentially torch another church, unless he or she gets caught first.

“It’s a sad thing that happened, but it actually made us stronger,” said Occupy Sandy volunteer Eljay Marquez.  The church allows volunteers from his grass-roots organization to use its space to store and distribute household goods to help Superstorm Sandy survivors.

That work is proceeding despite the fire, with more volunteers showing up throughout the day Monday, and with all of the goods donated to Sandy victims, including hundreds of gift-wrapped toys, having gotten through the emergency undamaged.  The Occupy Sandy volunteers gathered at the church Monday to go to the Rockaways to hand out the donated toys there.

However, the organization’s events, according to a St. Luke and St. Matthew minister, may have had an unintended connection to the origin of the fire. It was apparently arson, set around 4:00 A.M. Sunday by someone who saw two gas canisters belonging to the Occupy Sandy organization that were outside of the building, as required by law.  The canisters were ready to be used later Sunday to power a generator for an Occupy Sandy Christmas party for kids.

“Whoever it was who set this fire,” said Rev. Chris Ballard, “knew where [the canisters] were, and set the church on fire.”  The subsequent blaze needed 100 firefighters to put it out over the course of about 90 minutes.

Who was behind this act is as much a mystery to parishioners as it is to neighbors of the 178 year-old institution.  “People just don’t say, ‘I’m going to burn the church down,'” Dell Marie Anderson, a neighborhood resident, said about how puzzled people are that this act of potentially deadly violence could have happened at all.

Whoever is behind the arson attack is still out there, and so are at least eight officers from the NYPD arson and explosion squad, who spent most of Monday going house to house on the block of Clinton Street, talking with neighbors to gather information and pursue leads.

Despite the unknowns in this crime, what is known this Christmas Eve is that donations to the church and to Occupy Sandy came in steadily all day, as did volunteers and parishioners.  It was clear that all the fire had done was to light the Christmas spirit even brighter.

“It’s terrible, you know,” said Al Seon, a member of St. Luke and St. Matthew for 62 years, “but we’ll get over it.”  He spoke with PIX11 News as he and other parishioners prepared the church’s social hall for a children’s Christmas Eve party, which was to be followed by a carol sing at 8:30 P.M. Monday, and a Christmas Eve worship service at 10:00 P.M.  A Christmas Day service was scheduled to proceed as planned at 10:00 A.M. Tuesday.

It was evident on Christmas Eve that the church, named after two saints who wrote of the Christmas child overcoming great adversity to rise again, were following the Christ child’s example on the holiday named after him.