THE AMERICAN SOUTH – There’s no way to explain what it’s like to stare into the gutted remains of a burnt church. The mind works desperately to reconstruct the roof, to reassemble the ruined boards, to recreate the shattered and melted windows, while the heart struggles to understand how somebody could ever be responsible for something so vile.
The God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia has been lying in ruins since the early hours of June 23rd, when somebody broke in and wired the doors shut and set fire to a house of worship a dozen parishioners called home. Before, the building stood out from its surroundings: a limestone gray structure with a dignified veneer amid a neighborhood of foreclosed homes populated by boarded windows and collapsed porches. Across the street a house stripped to plywood walls, graffiti reading RIP PETEY.
For days I’ve watched news reports covering the tragedy, short local TV-style interviews amounting to five-second clips with heartbroken members positioned so the smoldering remains are just right in the background. The assistant pastor promising to move on or else “the devil gonna win.”
The only movement in the world, from my place in the parking lot, is a fight between two emaciated dogs down the road. There’s a big tan mutt, gaunt with ribs straining against skin, and for an opponent a black dog that looks equally starving but also missing its tail.
They’re tussling, snapping at each others ears and hindquarters, until somebody at the church next door to God’s Power–a massive, brick building with a steeple that towers over the crime scene–steps out into the early afternoon heat and tells them to git.
It occurs to me that I should walk next door and ask the person about the fire, about what it’s like when your neighbors are attacked, about how it feels to be so close to a desecrated church, but separating the lots is a chain-link fence ringed with barbed wire.
In the wake of Dylann Roof walking into the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston and killing nine innocent people in cold blood, there have been eight churches burned in the country, four of them chalked up to either lightning or electrical failures, three determined to have been acts of arson, and the last, a tiny church in the Middle of Nowhere, South Carolina, just sixty miles from the scene of the killing, still under investigation.
Nearly as old as the country itself, America has a history of burning churches. The first recorded case was in 1822 in South Carolina and since then houses of worship have been burned to the ground at an alarming rate, including a stretch between 1995 and 1996 when 145 churches, including the Mount Zion AME Church, which just recently caught fire again a week to the day after God’s Power Church of Christ was set ablaze, were purposefully put to flame.
In researching this piece I’ve talked to many people who wonder why this recent rash, particularly in the wake of the one of most reprehensible acts of racist hatred in modern times, hasn’t received more national attention. Others work overtime to disprove there’s anything needing covered, that the timing just happens to be coincidental and that black churches, and churches of every stripe and denomination for that matter, are burning constantly. Statistics show that every week there are on average thirty-four church fires in America, five of which are intentional.
Both sides of the argument are simultaneously right. There seems to have been an outbreak of racially-motivated attacks on black churches following Dylann Roof’s bigoted massacre, not to mention the recent sea-change regarding the Confederate flag’s place in society, BUT the frequency isn’t necessarily surprising.
Both things are true, but shouldn’t that beg another question?
Why aren’t we talking about that?
Coasting through the neighborhoods, it feels like a Southern take on San Francisco replete with cloistered townhouses. The GPS tells me to hook it past the remains of Knoxville College, an HBC on the verge of ruin. There are thirty-five members on staff to serve a grand total of eleven students. Campus is empty. A wasteland to match the vacant streets.
I climb a hill, the car straining while the air-conditioner fights the hundred-degree heat, and reach the summit where the College Hill Seventh-Day Adventist Church stands. From its base you can look out over Knoxville proper and enjoy a view unrivaled anywhere else in the city. Down there are buildings, people hurrying inside to escape the brutality of the midday sun, waves and waves of other churches.
In the parking lot there are still stains where somebody trailed piles of hay and dirt to the church’s door. Whoever was responsible set fire to the trail, apparently hoping to burn the building down, much as they destroyed a nearby van used to drive parishioners–the disabled, the poor, the elderly–to and from services. Though the church was not as marred as others, the damages are still significant. $50,000 in all.
Authorities have ruled it an act of arson, but are hesitant to label it a hate crime.
“I don’t have proof it was a hate crime,” pastor Cleveland Hodby III told The Guardian newspaper, “but you know a burnt-down church really leaves no sign that says ‘we hate you.’ It’s a burnt church that says ‘we hate you.’”
Leaving College Hill, I drive and try to discern the difference between the act of burning a church and the act of burning a church out of hate. There doesn’t seem to be much daylight between the two. The more I look at burnt churches the more it seems like the act itself is an outward expression of some internal hate, an action meant to give life to a roiling so deep and hidden and disgusting it can only birth ruins.
On the way to the interstate and another burnt church, I descend a hill so steep I have to pump the brakes lest I roll through a stop sign and directly into oncoming traffic. By the sign is a gas station where I buy something to drink for the road. July in the South breeds a certain appreciation for water you can’t find anywhere else, as well as a communal sense of shared burden. The cashier is kind. The man behind me in line is kind. There’s a brief interaction between two men at the door, one white and one black, and they are kind. Outside, at the pumps, more kindness between strangers. Everywhere there is kindness.
Before leaving, I step into the bathroom and lock the door. On the cheap plastic walls, every few inches, are pieces of Sharpie-written graffiti. Gang tags. Numbers for blowjobs and every other sexual favor imaginable. Crude cartoons of naked women and copulating animals. Over the toilet a dark cloud of racist rants. Slurs. A badly-drawn Confederate flag under which is written: THE SOUTH WILL RISE AGAIN. Next to it a trio of swastikas.
When I travelled to Iowa last month to cover the presidential campaign, the talk of the country was an incident in the Texas town of McKinney in which an overzealous cop used excessive force in busting a pool party and pulled his gun on a group of black teens. The footage was making the rounds on the cable news channels and the chit-chat in the rooms–before candidates gave their stump speeches and pressed flesh–was how frustrated people were with all the recent racial clashes.
“It’s like every time I turn on the TV,” I heard a woman say in Cedar Falls, “that’s all I see anymore.”
Fair enough, it has been a particularly hard year or so in terms of race relations, what with unarmed black men being killed by police and the shooting in Charleston, but the emphasis, in that and several other conversations I overheard, was not so much with the state of race in America, but rather a certain fatigue, or enervative malaise, that had settled into the mood of the country.
People were tired of watching riots in major American cities.
People were tired of shaky camera phone footage of police stepping over the line.
They were tired of being reminded of constant and ever-present inequalities.
Simply put, to be white in this country, particularly to be middle-class and white, is to live with the ability to perpetually control your reality. If the news gets too ugly, if the world suddenly falls apart across the globe or even down the street, all you have to do is change the channel or drive a different route home.
From time-to-time though, confronting the realities of Unequal America becomes a necessity. Most Americans, I have to believe, are not necessarily bigots. There are preconceived notions, hints of racial insecurity or bouts of ignorance, but I have to think, simply to wake up in the morning, that the predominance of my fellow countrymen aren’t out-and-out bigots. They genuinely care about fairness, about justice, about the dignity of the people, and when confronted with something as heinous as the murder of innocent black people they are possessed of appropriate and heartfelt rage.
Starting with the murder of Trayvon Martin in early 2012, and perhaps cresting with the slaughter in Mother Emanuel three weeks ago, those presumably levelheaded citizens were given their fair share of racial injustice. Though the coverage only scratched the surface of the disparities between the experiences of white and black Americans, those who recognize discrimination were given a glimpse into the ever-widening gap of privilege and were horrified by what they saw.
Watching innocent people die day after day was a taxing and harrowing experience, even for those watching from the safety of their homes, but nonetheless they continued to watch. They flooded social media and used hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and they donated to the Emanuel Church. They watched the President of the United States eulogize a pastor slain with his flock and they prayed for a post-racial America. They watched and they watched and they watched.
Why would they not watch the burning of a church?
The Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte sits in a neighborhood lined with maintained ranch houses and gated student apartment complexes. Every few blocks the copycat housing facilities spring up, most of them three stories high with sparkling pools in their courtyards. They’re busy today because the heat is stifling. There isn’t so much as a breeze to be felt, no movement or relief.
By the time I step out of my car my shirt is sucked to my back. There’s a sheen of sweat covering me and the heat feels violent. My car, having now ran for two days and nearly seven hundred miles worth of road, is wheezing loudly as I step to an entrance decorated in signs warning THIS BUILDING UNSAFE and KEEP OUT. Under them a less starkly worded sign pointing toward the Worship Center, the Child Development Center, the Family Life Center, all of them in the church proper. Briar Creek has been so many things to so many people now, including the home of the summer day-camp Camp “Son” Shine, an event serving over two dozen children.
On the fence around the perimeter of the property there’s a sign advertising the camp, and directly behind it is a small playground with plastic slides and equipment. Whoever set the fire in the early hours of June 24th must’ve driven or walked past the playground, past the sign for Camp “Son” Shine, past the sign detailing all of the church’s innumerable functions.
The building is ruined. Chunks are taken out of the roof as if some giant leaned down and took a healthy bite. The brick walls seem on the verge of collapse. Stepping over the forgotten police tape, lying in the grass like a great, lazy, yellow snake, I listen to the sound of the cars whooshing by, to the faint traces of music carrying over from the pools.
Nearby Charlotte is still bustling. The area is a type of strange mix between poor ethnic neighborhoods and hip new breweries sandwiched between vanity shops. Beleaguered people walk down the sidewalk, their clothes sopped through with sweat, while tanktopped thirty-somethings glide through on their fixed-gear bicycles. Traffic is bad, and getting worse by the minute.
By the time this piece is finished, the Confederate flag that hung over the Confederate Memorial in front of the South Carolina Statehouse will have been removed. Throngs of people will cheer as state police, including one solemn African-American officer, lower the flag and fold it respectfully. Somehow this was accomplished in the first state to secede from the Union, the first recorded state to ever burn a black church, a state that has suffered as much racial strife as any other in the country.
This past week, in Statesboro, a group of around seventy-five people rallied in the Super Wal-Mart parking lot and drove to the Bulloch County Courthouse to gather and show support of the emblem. All of them claimed the flag was a symbol of “heritage not hate,” a phrase that has garnered an increasing amount of momentum in the past few weeks.
Critics, of which there are seemingly more and more every single day, argue that the flag is an understood symbol of racial oppression, of treason in the name of segregation and subjugation. They say it’s a metaphor for a long-dead rebellion that was born out of a love for white supremacy and that the time is long past for it to be retired to a museum. They regularly associate the flag with the much more universally loathed swastika of the Third Reich, a banner with which few would ever argue represents German heritage. They say both are equally recognizable and transparent.
We are, it seems, a people transfixed by metaphor, by images and their hidden, subconscious meaning. Every single day we are inundated with secret codes and languages which we understand without fully comprehending. There are the simpler and the benign, the stop signs, the warnings, and then there are the larger, broader, more menacing ones. Part of privilege, particularly white privilege, is the ability to transcend certain images that others have no choice but to heed.
The Confederate flag.
The Nazi swastika.
The furtive language of prejudice and control.
To see the Stars and Bars as a white man in America is, in my experience anyway, to first realize the type of individual who has chosen to display. I assume they’re southern, or else sympathetic to either the Confederacy or their end-goals. If I think about the flag much longer, I’ll inevitably ponder the message being sent to minorities, but if I’m not careful, if I’m speeding along the highway, listening to a song, talking on the phone, or simply letting my thoughts linger on easier and softer things, that fact might not occur as readily as it would to an African-American descended from slaves brought unwillingly to this country.
Symbols like the Confederate flag are reminders that blacks and other minorities shouldn’t get too comfortable. There was a time where the freedoms and liberties they enjoy, though they are not always equal freedoms or equal liberties, did not exist. And they could always be taken away. That symbol is heightened and empowered by other symbols: roads named after Confederate generals, memorials, Confederate fetishization, even the names and mascots of sporting teams. It’s a confluence meant to convey that their freedom is tenuous, that the South could always rise again.
The power of this oppression is limited though. The Confederacy and its numerous traditions and pageantry can only control an individual so much considering its power and memory only exist in the Here and the Now. This was an important piece of knowledge that slaves utilized in their generations of labor. They sang spirituals about their reward and freedom coming in the next life, standards like “Blow Your Trumpet, Gabriel”:
“O, blow your trumpet, Gabriel;
Blow your trumpet louder;
And I want that trumpet to blow me home
To my New Jerusalem”
The war of the Confederacy on the black slave in America was a war for their bodies and minds, but it was a losing battle because, considering the slave knew their chains wouldn’t follow them to heaven, they could never contain their souls.
This is why the church is so important in the African-American community, why it has served as a communal center and sanctuary since the first foundation to a black church was laid. Even now, a scant hundred-and-fifty-two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and an even scanter fifty-one years following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black men and women are victim to the forces of racism and intolerance that have plagued them and their people since they first stepped foot on the North American Continent.
Burning a black church is an attempt to steal from the believer their faith that a fairer and more just world awaits them, an action of thieving hope and crushing resolve, an effort, much like the perversion of the cross in the Ku Klux Klan’s burning ritual, to extend the power of oppression from here into eternity.
It is, somehow and someway, more cruel than it even appears on the surface.
Outside of Aiken, South Carolina is a line of rural towns that blend together seamlessly. They all look alike and sport the same, identical buildings and closed shops. There are no boundaries, no separation, nothing that could differentiate them in the slightest.
What is even more remarkable than all the tiring sameness, is the string of churches along the road. There are seemingly more of them than people, a phenomena made even stranger by the fact that none of the marquees so much as mention the fire at Glover Grove Baptist Church, a rural congregation that sits in either Warrenville or Gloverville, whatever the difference might be. In this small of a community I’d expected maybe a groundswell of support and well-wishes, at the very least a vague mention of “keeping faith” or “standing with our brothers.” The only sign of note reads THE SUPREME COURT DOESN’T CHANGE THE WORD OF GOD.
While I’m searching the main and back roads for any sign of the site, I pass one decrepit building after another. It seems like maybe a great fire has descended on the area, leaving homes and businesses alike scorched with damage. Between gawking at the remains and discerning street signs, a fleet of trucks and cars bearing the Confederate Flag routinely pass by, including a pick-up with a poorly painted hood.
On a hunch, I follow a country road past an old lube station where a group of maybe half a dozen men are stacking tires onto a bonfire. Next to them sits an old Ford, on which one of their bored wives or mothers rests on the tailgate next to a pile of ripe-looking watermelons on sale for five dollars. I take the road farther out than I think I should before I catch a sign for Glover Grove. I keep following it, listening to the radio talk about the votes in the Statehouse to remove the flag.
When I reach the church I’m surprised because I’d been gawking at its neighbor, a trashy house with a lawn full of cars. The mess isn’t what’s got my attention though. It’s the Stars and Bars on the front porch, two lines of yellow lettering reading HERITAGE NOT HATE. Between it and the church is a small bunch of trees, hardly anything separating them at all, and then, right there, is the hollowed-out shell of Glover Grove, as upsetting a disaster scene as I’ve witnessed since a trip to New York City in 2002.
The front of the church is basically intact, save for some smoke damage, and off of the façade is a short jut of wall, but then…nothing. Rubble on the ground, but above it a great, vast space where the roof once protected the worshippers. Still driving, my heart hitches because the damage is just unbelievable. I have to turn down the road running perpendicular just so I can slow down and take in the full brunt of the destruction.
On the 26th of June, a Friday morning, an inferno scorched and devastated the small building, leaving only the front entrance, a few surviving pews, and a mess of charred remains. An investigation concluded that the cause was “undetermined,” but the result is anything but unclear.
I circle around the church a few times, try to see what remains from every conceivable angle. It doesn’t seem real, more like a hallucination than a piece of reality. On my fourth go-round, I notice that the inhabitants of the other neighboring house, this one a small white home with a modest backyard shouldering on the edge of the road, have come out to watch me. They are a young African-American family and they sit in plastic chairs in the lawn. There are trees that shield the house from the road, but a gap that looks out over Glover Grove. There’s no way they didn’t watch the church burn to the ground. No way they don’t look at the wreckage every single day.
This time I roll down my window, extend my hand and wave. Of the five family members assembled, two of them wave back. I think of the day-to-day kindness. The people who live their lives and never hurt anyone. The men and women in their backyards, minding their business. The people in the Tennessee gas station. The black man who had just come out of the bathroom, who had just stared at the racist drivel and hateful drawings on the cheap plastic walls.
Down the road I’ll pull into the parking lot of an untouched Baptist church when the electrical system to my car gives. The days of air-conditioning and miles of road traveled have taken their toll. It, like its driver, is tired. Turning the engine off, I stare at the sign on the side of the church, an advertisement for Vacation Bible School, a summer camp for the children of members. The white faces on the poster look happy and carefree. In this case, the symbol is easily discernible.
For some, the fun will never end.
Photos by the author