The primary topic at the Courthouse Grill in Carrollton, Ala., this past week has been the arrest of three young, urban college students for setting fires in nine rural Baptist churches in the Black Belt. Dancy First Baptist, which was badly damaged, is less than 25 miles south on state route 17 from the cafe.

The consensus seems to be that the story that these fires stemmed from a drunken prank that got out of hand is tougher to swallow than Ms. Patty’s pancakes on an off morning here at the grill. The fact that each fire was fueled by an accelerant suggests planning and preparation.

The local opinion is that some spoiled rich boys do not want to be charged with a “hate crime,” so they are casting around for an alternate explanation for their evil actions. The common element, starting the fire in the pulpit area, is seen by the locals as evidence of anti-Christian feelings on the part of the three boys.

It was concluded that the truth may come out in the court proceedings, but several diners express the opinion that the boys, being from wealthy families, will not be severely punished.

One of the locals stated that he believed a good punishment for the boys would be to assign them to the work crews which will be rebuilding the burned churches. While several agreed, most hoped that the churches would be up and going long before the boys come to trial. Another suggested that the young men be assigned to attend worship and participate in each of the nine churches, one year at a time.

A farmer from the Dancy/Panola area noted that Dancy First Baptist is hoping to be back in their church house for Easter. The inside of the church has been gutted, and a group of volunteer dry wall workers is scheduled for next week. He also revealed that Galilee had worshipped last Sunday in a mobile chapel which had been loaned to that congregation.

Another stated that his preacher announced last Sunday that the burned churches were receiving cash and goods from donors across the county, and he believed that most of the churches might be building back better than they had been before the fire.

Yes, said another, “God is taking what was meant for evil and turning it to good.”

Several spoke approvingly of the sentiment on the sign at Dancy Baptist, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” They added that they hoped the boys would now come to understand what they had done, repent, and take Jesus as the Savior and Lord.

Based on the conversations that I heard, there was deep compassion for the families of the boys. The fellows in the Courthouse Grill were particularly sympathetic toward the mothers, who were surely embarrassed by their sons.

Deacon Roy, who has long taught a Bible class at the Baptist church across the courthouse square, noted that at least since the days of the eighth century prophets, Jeremiah and Micah, rich city folk have taken advantage of, and dehumanized, rural folk. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus echoed this charge and blessed the poor and oppressed.

He continued that God has a special place in his heart for the poor folk of the earth. He was very critical of the sinful arrogance of the wealthy in their treatment of the poor. Roy lamented that after nearly 2,000 years most folk still do not get it. Pride continues to be among the most popular forms of sin.

During my most recent visit to the grill, I heard mention made of an article that appeared in the current edition of our weekly county paper about the steps being taken toward the construction of a federal prison in our county. Old Roy declared that this was just another example of city folk “dumping their trash” out in the country–out of sight and out of mind.

Then–after Eddie, wondered out-loud if the three boys might become our neighbors after the prison is finished–this group drifted up to the cash register, paid Ms. Susie, and went about their daily tasks.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church Leadership in Carrollton, Ala. His blog is here.

Previous related columns:
Progress in Burned Churches
Church Fires Hit Home

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