Community helps church arson victim

Presbyterian Church deacon Dan Bixler cleans up ire debris Sunday morning. He said damage from the arson was mostly confined to the entrance, with the front doors blocking the flames from entering inside. KLH | Union

Janine Volkmar
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Saturday, Sept. 16 was a beautiful day at the North Country Fair. The Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir rocked the stage by the Plaza with their five piece band.

Later that same night the Arcata Presbyterian Church, where the choir rehearses weekly, was burned and a homeless man who sought a safe sleeping place in the church’s entry was burnt.

Speculation and rumors flew. At one time, stories circulated that the broken window at the rear of the church was evidence of a burglary attempt. Some thought the would-be robber tried to burn the church as a coverup. The truth of the rear window is that a good Samaritan broke the window hoping to find a fire extinguisher.

Members of the choir have spoken by telephone with the man who was burnt. His name is Michael Alpha and he gave his permission to them to share his story. The Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir started a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help both Alpha and the church.

Both Donna George, a choir member, and her husband, Louis Hoiland, the choir director have had conversations with Alpha. Ralph Davis, another choir member, was able to get help into the mix from his former church in Sacramento, St. Mark’s United Methodist Church.

Alpha was first taken to Mad River Community Hospital and then transferred to the Burn Unit at University of California at Davis for specialized treatment. His hands and face were burned.

He described his life to George and Hoiland as one of a series of hardships. He grew up in Michigan and was raised by his grandmother until the age of eight when she passed away. He then moved to Ohio and lived with an older sister. He doesn’t know who his real mom is and the woman who raised him also passed away, as did his father. A church pastor who was like a father to him also passed away.

Alpha said that he has been homeless for three or four months and had been in Orick before coming to Arcata. He told George that he wanted to go home to Ohio where he has a girlfriend and an 11-month-old child.

Alpha was released from the Burn Unit on Sept. 29.

It hasn’t been all easy. Alpha got confused and went to the emergency room when he was supposed to go to a shelter. It’s not clear if he ever entered the shelter or just left it. Kevin Jenkins, the associate pastor from St. Mark’s picked him up at the ER and bought him food and clothing. Jenkins also bought Alpha a bus ticket for Ohio at his request and gave him money for food for the trip. The GoFundMe will reimburse Jenkins for the costs. “The church in Sacramento has been just awesome,” Hoiland said. Alpha later missed the bus. He still had his ticket and could wait in the bus station for the next bus as long as he could show the ticket. Eventually, he made it to Ohio.

George, who worked for Humboldt County Mental Health as a crisis counselor, knows the patterns. She recognized that Alpha had more than the physical problems associated with the burns. His burns are healing well and he was described as looking as if he had a bad sunburn. But the trauma of being attacked has only added to his mental issues, she surmised. George has spoken with him over the phone several times. The choir members will try to keep in touch with Alpha and continue to be of help to him.

The choir is also helping the Arcata Presbyterian Church with repair costs. The church did have insurance but it included a $2,500 deductible. The choir’s GoFundMe campaign has covered that.

The church members are seeking to fireproof the building, doing such changes as replacing boards outside with Hardie Board siding, a cement board siding, and installing new drywall inside in an effort to have the building not so flammable.  They are still planning on preserving the historic aspect of the building.

The choir is planning a concert titled, Love Thy Neighbor; No Hate in Our Town, tentatively scheduled for Feb. 10. The gospel choir will sing and a group described as the Arcata All-Stars, musicians from many local bands playing together, will perform. Hoiland described the concert as a “community event to promote acceptance of all people” and said that the proceeds would go to the church rebuilding and to support Alpha.

For more information, visit the Arcata Interfaith Gospel Choir Facebook page.


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