SONORA, Calif. — A man has been arrested in connection with a fire that burned down a church in Sonora.
The Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office identified the arson suspect as 23-year-old Brennan Debisschop. He was booked into the Dambacher Detention Center.
Church officials said there was nothing left of the building after the fire.
"It's a very, very difficult situation, and there's a tremendous amount of sadness and grieving going on right now," said Terry Clark, spokesperson for the Journey Church of Sonora.
The fire happened Saturday night and had already engulfed the building by the time deputies arrived, according to Clark.
"What I saw was an incredible group of firemen working very hard to try to control the fire. By that time, the church was already lost. In fact, I would guess by the time they got there, the church was lost," Clark said.
Cal Fire investigators searched for the cause of the fire, and around 12:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, Cal Fire crews requested that deputies return to the church because a man had entered the active fire area.
In a Facebook post, the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office said the man was "acting strange and refusing to leave."
Deputies arrived and arrested Debisschop on suspicion of arson and burglary. Clark said the arson suspect didn't have any connection to the church.
It's a tragedy for a church that's had its share of struggles. Clark said the church lost its pastor in January, dealt with declining attendance and even weighed the option of closing their doors before the fire happened.
"We made a decision that that wasn't going to deter us, that we were going to move forward and we're already backed up to 40 people," Clark said. Somebody said today, 'we're a new congregation, and now we're gonna have a new building and a year from now we'll have a new beginning and God is good.'"
Clark said they're not sure how the fire started, but said that it appears to have started in the kitchen, which was in the back corner of the building.
He saw the flames stretching into the sky as he made the seven-minute drive from his home to the church that night.
"I was probably a half mile from the church. You can see the flames shooting 30 to 40 feet in the air," he said.
He stayed on scene talking with investigators until about 2 a.m.
While the act has left the church grieving, Clark said he's not harboring any anger toward Debisschop. He wants him to "find god in his life" and "repent of the sin he has."
"It's not important why he did it. What's important is he has issues and he needs to get to the other side of those issues and God is the one that can help him do that," Clark said.
For the church, they'll continue their way forward. On Sunday, they did held their service in a parking lot with about 60 attendees.
"We're not sure yet what the next month or so will look like. Right now, people love the outdoor service and want to meet outdoors. But next Sunday is supposed to rain and we can't meet outdoors, so we have already had the offer of a couple of churches to let us use their church," Clark said.
In the meantime, Clark is asking for prayers and any financial aid for the church as they try to rebuild.
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