Police are looking for this van that was stolen from Forsyth UMC just before a mission trip to North Carolina. (Special to the Reporter)

Thieves stole the Forsyth United Methodist Church van late Monday night/early Tuesday morning, July 1-2. Targeting the downtown church known for helping people throughout the community, criminals took the church’s 15-passenger van less than a week before it was slated to take youth and adult leaders on an annual mission trip to Marshall County, N.C. in Appalachia.

Youth minister Jody Barfield said the youth group had returned from an activity late Monday night and parked the van in a lighted area in front of the church about 11:30 p.m. By 8 a.m. when preschool workers arrived at the church all that remained where the van was parked was the lettering from its side identifying it as property of “Forsyth United Methodist Church,” which had been scraped off with a razor blade. 

Barfield said the van was locked and the keys were in the church office; so the thieves must have hot-wired the ignition to start it. There was no evidence of broken glass in the parking lot. The church has exterior cameras, but they were not pointed toward the van. Barfield said to his knowledge there have been no other break-ins or similar incidents at the church.

“It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard,” he said.

The missing van is a 2008 white Chevrolet 15-passenger van with maroon striping on the side, and it used to have lettering. Strikingly, a 2008 white Chevrolet 15-passenger van with lettering was stolen from Stark United Methodist Church, 1097 Halls Bridge Road, Jackson on May 17. It was later found stripped.

Stanley Maddox took care of the Stark UMC van. He said it was found dumped on the side of a road in Meriwether County about 10 days after the theft, without its engine, tires, wheels, transmission… nothing but a hull. The van had new tires on it when stolen; old ones were on it to roll it to the side of the road. 

“It’s sickening,” said Maddox.

He said the Stark UMC van only had 37,000 miles on it and was in mint condition; with insurance only replacing the average cost of a comparable van, the church will not be able to replace what it had. Maddox said Stark UMC has not been able to buy another van, yet. He estimates it will cost $45-50,000. 

Maddox said a truck was stolen from his business, Stananco, Inc., the same night the Stark UMC van was stolen, and it is thought the thieves are the same. Cameras show a man dropped off down the street, wearing a hood over his head. He tried to take one vehicle, which would not start because it was at the store for repairs, and then moved on to the truck beside it, on which repairs had been completed. The truck was locked, but he pried the door open and started it. 

“They can start it with a screwdriver as quick as with a key,” said Maddox.

He said there is a market for the engines from the 15-passenger vans, as well as for the tires and other parts. The engines are used to build up race cars and other vehicles with greater power. However, taking an engine out of a van is not an easy job. 

“It’s two times as hard as a car or truck because it’s inside a closed compartment,” he said. “It can’t be done by the side of the road.”

Maddox said the thieves, or someone they’re working with, must have experience pulling engines and parts, and they must also have some kind of shop to do the work, even if that shop is in a back yard. The thieves couldn’t get the lettering off the Stark UMC van in the parking lot like they did the Forsyth UMC van. It took a heat gun to get the lettering off, but they had done that before they dumped the once mint-condition van’s remains. 

Barfield said that thieves attempted to steal a similar van from Jackson UMC about two weeks ago but were unsuccessful. Jackson UMC loaned Forsyth UMC a van to help the mission trip continue smoothly.

Barfield said Forsyth UMC partners with New Providence Baptist and Mt. Zion Methodist in Smarr to help with transportation on trips.

“They are very generous in helping meet our needs,” he said.

About 35 youth and 10 adult leaders are on the mission trip to North Carolina, which is based at Glory Ridge Camp. Teams of 7-10 people will work to repair homes, primarily for elderly residents who don’t have means to get the work done themselves. The Forsyth group is assigned four homes to start and will probably complete work at six or seven sites by the end of the week. Barfield explained that multiple vans are needed to get the teams to and from their work sites efficiently. 

As Barfield expected, people have stepped up and found a solution to make sure the mission trip is not impaired by the theft of the van. But the bigger problem is replacing the van in time for its every day use in Forsyth UMC’s after school program, which will begin with the start of Monroe County Schools on Aug. 2. The van is also important to the very active youth group at the church, which uses it for trips about once every two weeks. 

“They were not encouraging about finding the van,” said Barfield. “We’re looking for something safe and reliable; the rest is okay.”

The church had insurance on the van that will cover the basic replacement. Church members are hoping there is someone who has a van for sale at a reasonable price or that someone feels moved to donate to help with a quick replacement. 

“It’s not the end of the world. God will provide,” said Barfield. “We’re going to move on from that and continue with what we’re here to do—helping people.”