KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A federal investigation is underway after arson damaged a historic Kansas City, Missouri, church that now serves a congregation predominantly made up of people from South Sudan.

John Ham of the Kansas City office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the Kansas City Star that authorities have determined that the blaze was intentionally set, making it a federal crime.

The fire was discovered about 9:15 a.m. Saturday at the building known as Harlem Baptist Church on the city’s north side. Arriving firefighters discovered that the front of the building and an area of stairs going to the basement were fully engulfed in flames, and they determined that’s where the fire started.

One firefighter had to be rescued after the stairway collapsed. He was not injured. The church suffered heavy fire damage to the front, and smoke and water damage elsewhere.

The church was founded in 1907 as the Harlem Tabernacle Church. It is the last remaining original building of a non-incorporated community known as Harlem. It now serves as a gathering place for the United Christian Fellowship.

Pastor Gabriel Riak said the congregation has Black and white members, including Sudanese and Americans. He said he was grateful no one was in the building. KMBC reported.


Members are planning to restore the church, which sustained about $90,000 in damage, he said.

“But first, we do need your prayers. Because it’s kind of a shock for all of us — even our kids who come here and worship with us, they are asking ‘why, what happened’ and I don’t know any answer to give them,” Riak said.

“It was the center of social life for the community for 120 years,” said Jason Withington of Kansas City, one of the church’s trustees. “To find out that somebody intentionally set the fire, it’s just heartbreaking.”

The church had ceased operation as the Harlem Baptist Church in 2005. Withington said it sat vacant until the Sudanese congregation started gathering there about a dozen years ago. It still has a sign outside saying “Harlem Baptist Church.”

Withington and his father were baptized at the church. His grandparents attended there for 60 years.

When he heard about the fire, Withington said he began to cry “because this church has meant so much to me and my family.”