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.

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."

* * *

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.

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.

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.

* * *

"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."

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