EAST TEXAS (KLTV) -
Two men who infamously set fire to ten East Texas churches are talking about how prison has impacted their views on religion. They're also coming to East Texans with an apology.
In 2011, 19-year-old Jason Bourque and 21-year-old Daniel McAllister pleaded guilty to setting fire to the churches. The year before, churches from Canton to Tyler to Athens were destroyed in the fires. It was a frustrating and frightening winter that many people will never forget.
From their separate prisons, where both men are currently serving life sentences, the arsonists spoke about their faith and what they've learned about forgiveness.
Both McAllister and Bourque were raised in devoted Christian households. They say they met in Sunday school. However, their faith wasn't as strong in 2010 when they began breaking into churches and setting them on fire, supposedly while under the influence of drugs.
Now that four years have passed, they're looking back on the arsons with pain and regret. They're also looking toward the future, thanks to East Texans' forgiveness.
In February of 2010, a Dover Baptist Church member asked the question that so many East Texans wanted an answer to.
"Why? This is the Lord's house, and it's such a shame that somebody can be such an unbeliever," said Shirley Valadez as she looked at what was left of Dover Baptist Church.
Why and how could someone not just vandalize, but destroy the places of worship that so many East Texans held close to their hearts? Both men attribute their actions to drugs. Jason Bourque says it was the anti-smoking drug, Chantix.
"It just had be doing a lot of crazy things," Bourque, 24, recalls from prison in Tennessee Colony, Texas.
Bourque's counterpart, Daniel McAllister, says back then he would take anything that could get him high.
"I was on pills, smoked weed, meth sometimes... just different kinds of pain pills, Mucinex pills," McAllister, 26, explains.
The arsonists have served just a few years of their multiple life sentences. Even though the consequences of setting the fires will stick with them forever, the churches that they burned have long moved on.
"I wrote them all apology letters about a year ago and almost all of them wrote me back really wonderful letters and have kept in touch with me," says Bourque.
During our visit, we brought the men more words of forgiveness from the ones they had hurt.
"That just shows the strength of forgiveness. I feel like people put too much emphasis on the building, but either way I still hurt those people, so the fact that they're able to be so forgiving shows a lot about their character and that they're true Christians," says Bourque.
A letter to the men came from Grace Bible Church in Athens. In 2010, the church was burned to the ground. Everything was lost and they were one of the last churches to rebuild.
"The church looked like it easily could have folded because we are a small church," explains Pastor Marvin Keown
Keown became the pastor at Grace Bible Church in the months following the fires. He says about 18 months ago, their small congregation was finally able to worship in a new building they now call home.
"It did help us in that regard, to regain the Biblical focus that the church is people. It's not concrete and steel and glass and insulation and all those things," he says.
Pastor Keown says the consensus among their members is that forgiveness is the only way.
"The scripture is very clear that we are to forgive. If there's going to be healing for us and for them, that does need to be exchanged," Keown says.
"It's good to hear from people that actually follow what the Bible says... that material wealth is, you know, don't put stock in what's in the world... just forgive so that The Father will forgive you. It's good to hear that there are actually churches that are still like that," says McAllister.
As far as their own faith stands, Bourque says he is a Christian. McAllister says he is still unsure. However, both men say their faith is growing and they're learning everyday.
"[I] just take it one day at a time... read my Bible. If I have questions, I go to a certain person in the day room and talk to him about it. I ask my dad a lot of questions when I write him and talk to him about stuff," says McAllister.
"It just seems to me that... as long as we worship God and live our lives right, that's the important thing. It's my love for God that gets me through day after day and what Jesus has done for me," explains Bourque.
Even though Bourque and McAllister have not spoken to each other in years, to this day, both say they're equally to blame for the fires. Without knowing what the other would say, they offered apologies and asked for East Texans' forgiveness.
"[I] hope everybody can move past what happened and understand it wasn't targeting them because they were religious. It was the easiest thing to get into at the time and hope that all of them can come to forgive," says McAllister.
"I just want to ask everybody in the whole East Texas community for forgiveness and tell them I'm sorry," says Bourque.
Daniel McAllister, who gave authorities a full confession, will be eligible for parole in 2016. He says he plans to move back to East Texas and live with his sister, a DPS employee who assisted in the original church fire investigation. Bourque isn't eligible for parole until 2024, but even then, he'll have to serve another 20 year sentence before he can be considered for release from prison. Bourque says he might write a book when he's released, but he doesn't know if he'll stay in Texas.
Some of the churches that the arsonists burned down have invited the men to attend their Sunday morning worship services when they are released from prison. Both men say they're not sure if they would ever attend.
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