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WILLS POINT It's been eight months since arsonists targeted a string of East Texas churches, destroying several of them while testing their members' faith.

Russell Memorial United Methodist Church in Wills Point was the eighth church set ablaze. Its sanctuary was gutted.

Now, Linda Greenwald and other members are celebrating a new beginning.

It's breathtaking, it's beautiful, she said. I wanted to wear my very best.

Pastor Billy Watson agreed. Isn't it a wonderful day? he asked. Just look around you. What can you say but, 'Thank you, God.' God has seen us through so much.

The fire of February 4 remains fresh in the minds of members.

Saw those flames and thought, 'This is horrible; we'll never be able to rebuild this church,' said Weldon George.

Flames took their sanctuary, but a foundation remained through the ashes.

The building is not the church, said church member Brian Hesse.

Pastor Watson's sermon focused on the future, but not without reference to the painful past. The reason it feels so good is that it felt so bad on February 4th, he said.

Prayers were also offered on behalf of the two men believed responsible for the crime, Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister.

Friends, we can't know what was going on in their hearts to lead them to do the things that they did, Pastor Watson said. But we can pray that God will break through their hearts.

Burned remnants remain part of the church, from metal door plates to a tarnished cross.

But the sun was shining brightly through new stained glass, signifying the new building and new attitude of the church.

This church is stronger today than it was before the fire, Pastor Watson asserted.

Church member Anita McKinney shared his sentiments. God gave us a beautiful day, and we've got a beautiful sanctuary filled with beautiful people, she said.

Church members said the fire hasn't only brought them a new sanctuary; Russell Memorial has seen a 20-percent increase in membership.

As for the two men accused of setting fire to the church, Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister remain behind bars on $10 million bond. They have a February court date.

E-mail dschechter@wfaa.com

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