Backstory: Seeking a miracle from the ashes
Arsonists destroy a church, but not the preacher's vision for this speck on an Alabama map.
If you weren't looking for Panola, you'd never find it. It's like a thousand other small towns across the South - an accidental detour on the way to somewhere else. Seventeen miles from a Snickers bar or a Coca-Cola, Panola is beyond rural - it's practically forgotten.Skip to next paragraph
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Things might still be that way if it hadn't been for the church fires - 10 in eight days last month across five different Alabama counties. Three Birmingham college students were arrested in connection with nine of the fires last Wednesday, but healing will take a long time in Panola, where Galilee Baptist Church was one of the last to burn, completely destroyed on Feb. 7.
The official town center here is a ramshackle store, closed more years than anyone can remember. Tangled vines snake through broken windows and graffiti rips across crumbling walls where old men and young boys loiter.
It's hard to fathom outsiders finding the tiny, wood-framed Galilee tucked a mile within the Sumter County woods. There are no signs to direct visitors through forest and muddy farmland, down a rutted road worn deep by deer hunters. But somehow, in the blackness of an Alabama night, arsonists found the opening in a thicket of trees, crossed a bridge - if two wooden planks fit that description - and ended up at Galilee, shelter for Panolans for more than 70 years.
No one knew about the fire until the church was leveled - just concrete steps jutting from ash. Names on the church's blackened cemetery slabs hint at the depth of history in the loss: Pastor Bob Little's great-great-grandfather, who helped build the church with his bare hands; generations of church members; at least one person born into slavery.
Mr. Little likens the fire's destruction to "killing a family member." Church offers spiritual strength, but it's also the social network holding this withered town together - something to look forward to, a place to set cares aside and catch up on local gossip.
"It's a small community, but everybody knows each other, and they go to church," says Jimmy Hurst, an elderly member of nearby Zion Valley Baptist church. "Everybody supports each other. Just about everybody is kin. They come here; we go there. It's just a home thing."
Galilee has been so integral to Della Ann Terry's life over the past 70 years that no fire can change that: "I don't care where [the church ends up] ... I'll go wherever it goes."
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Inevitably, conversation turns to the way things used to be, back when the cotton warehouse operated at full tilt and 13 stores flanked County Road 34. The young people can't imagine it. For as long as they can remember, Panola - population maybe 300 - has been a ghost town. Times are hard, but for everything Panola has lost, there remains an immutable Southern sweetness to life - a slow, languid sonnet rooted firmly in the trinity of faith, family, and community.
The sun still rises on Sunday mornings, glinting across frosty fields as mothers starch collars, polish shoes, steam turnip greens, and slather real butter over golden cornbread.
It's been this way as long as Little can remember. He fondly recalls his mother and the other women stacking boxes of food across the back pews, a heavenly smell punctuating the sermon on hot summer mornings and setting the children wild with anticipation: "You could smell that fried chicken and potato pie - that aroma would mess with you. They'd give us a paper plate, and we'd head out under the shade trees to eat."
Sundays then, as now, were all-day affairs. As soon as their own service ends, Galilee members go to special programs at other churches in the community - and the Panola area has five Baptist churches. Little's mother, Hazel White, says sometimes she doesn't get home until 10 on Sunday nights.