Backstory: Seeking a miracle from the ashes
Arsonists destroy a church, but not the preacher's vision for this speck on an Alabama map.
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Little is the first to admit that Panola - and the sleepy Galilee church - held little for him or others back in the 1970s when he left on a band scholarship to Alabama State University in Montgomery. There was no way he was coming back. He was going to be a politician or a lawyer.Skip to next paragraph
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A chance encounter with a pastor looking for a drummer set his life on a new course, moving through the clerical ranks of Montgomery's Sanctuary Baptist Church. The more time he spent at the city church with its contemporary charismatic praise and worship style and electronic music, the more Little realized what was missing in inspiration at his home church, which by 2000 was adrift, in danger of sinking. The elderly pastor had died, and his replacement had quickly come and gone. Little had just been named associate pastor at Sanctuary when the deacons of Galilee called him to come back and take the helm.
Little heard God calling, he says, but he wasn't sure he wanted to answer: "The steeple had fallen off and the rain was pouring in. They just had a concrete floor.... God will lead you in a lot of directions you don't want to go in."
He spent two years making the 30-mile drive between Panola and Montgomery every other week to preach. "God led me back," Little says. "People thought I was crazy because it was so remote, but every character in the Bible walked by faith and God made trees grow in the desert.... He called me to bring my people out of this desolate place."
Finally, Little took the job as Galilee's pastor in 2003 with some big ideas. He believes Galilee has a major role to play in rejuvenating Panola. Even before the fire, he was planning to bring the church out of the woods and build anew in the heart of town. Slowly, the church had been acquiring lots on the main road. If anything, the fire has given fuel to Little's vision, and the resources - funding from insurance and donations from the public, such as the Alabama Baptist State Convention - to back it up.
Indeed, Deacon Bob Russell says the fire was a blessing in disguise. "We've got plans," he says, gazing down the the main drag toward the church's future home. "We want to clean all this up."
But how? Looking at the sad town center and Little's docile flock of up to 50 low-income and elderly members, it's hard to see the vision.
Little's plan has been to reenergize the church, build a grocery store, then expand with profits, providing jobs and resources to locals. He draws financial inspiration from the business model of a controversial Pentacostal preacher who many in this area revere as savior and others consider a cult leader: Bishop Luke Edwards, founder of REACH Inc. His philosophy of self-reliance claims to empower the poor by pooling work and money of REACH members who live in a commune. In a series of articles in 2000, The Birmingham News listed REACH assets at more than $11 million. But the paper said the group has been cited for child labor infractions and investigated for child abuse, and a former employee successfully sued the founder for sexual misconduct.
Little works as manager of a REACH-owned truck stop and handles public relations for the organization during the week. He dismisses controversy over REACH as bad publicity, and his congregation seems largely unconcerned with REACH, but is fully aware of Little's business plan.
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"A quiet mouth never gets fed," Little shouts on a recent Sunday in a borrowed church. He sits in front of a set of shiny Yamaha keyboards, threading background music into his sermon for emphasis: "Galilee's not being quiet anymore. We want some things. We need some things. And God's gonna help us get 'em."
As the sun slants through the windows, light falls across 17 people among the empty pews. They stand as Little adjusts his microphone, poises thin, ringed fingers over his keys, and waits as Deacon Bob Russell begins a slow, steady drumbeat.
Then in a strong, clear voice, he begins to sing the old, familiar spiritual, "We Need a Miracle."