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National Perspective | COMMUNITIES

Angel of Love Helps Black Church Rise From the Ashes of Hate

They killed her dogs, threatened her family and shot at her home--but Ammie Murray kept her pledge to help a congregation in Dixiana, S.C., rebuild again.

November 10, 1998|RICHARD E. MEYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DIXIANA, S.C. — It stands in a glen, resplendent in red bricks, its roof and windows trimmed in white. It stands dauntless and defiant, against all odds.

A new St. John Baptist Church has risen from charred masonry blocks, twisted metal and ashes. Its tiny black congregation, 40 strong, and a sanctuary full of visitors gathered Sunday to celebrate and give thanks.

Since colonial times, four St. John churches have been devastated in this patch of countryside near Columbia, S.C.: by war, a tornado, desecration and arson. But now, it seemed, these trials were over; a promise from God had been fulfilled. The people of St. John prayed and sang and honored Ammie Murray, the diminutive 65-year-old white woman who made it happen.

"Thank you! Thank you!" shouted the Rev. Isaac Heyward, a visiting pastor. "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" He chanted and stomped and danced in a circle behind the pulpit, his black robe flying. "This little powerhouse of a woman! This is God's spiritual and special servant." He stood with his arms outstretched. "You are an angel. You are the expression of God. Everywhere you go, a light will shine."

King George's Revenge

St. John was founded in 1765 by a Calvinist from Switzerland who ministered to Swiss and German colonists near the fork of the Broad and Congaree rivers. He became a colonial patriot. In 1781, King George got even. The British destroyed St. John the first time. They burned it down.

White members of the congregation scattered to other churches. But their slaves, who worshiped in the St. John gallery, had nowhere to go. Near the ashes of the old church, they tied together tree branches and created a brush arbor, where they sang and prayed until the Civil War freed them and they could construct a proper church of their own.

They cut pine boards and built a new St. John Church nearby, in a secluded glen. The church was destroyed the second time on April 30, 1924, when a tornado splintered it and blew it away. All that was left was a single pine board lying in the dirt.

The St. John congregation cut more pine boards and built a second new church. It had a tin roof, a brick chimney and a pot-bellied stove. Somewhere among the new planks, the church members nailed into place the single pine board that God had spared.

In 1957, a new pastor could see that the church building had grown so old it was tinder and no longer safe. A bit farther back in the glen, he built a third new St. John Church, this time out of masonry blocks. Using wood from the old church, including the pine board that God had left behind, he built the roof and a 3-foot belfry, which he installed on top of the vestibule.

By now, St. John had become a Baptist church. Its members were few but fervent: a quiet, country congregation. They bothered no one. Some were the children and grandchildren of slaves, and they buried their kin in a small cemetery next to the church, under a tall oak.

But new growth in Lexington County isolated St. John, and vandals, most of them white, found it an easy target. They broke in, shredded its Bibles, scrawled on its walls, shattered its windows and shot into its pews. They destroyed St. John Baptist Church the third time in 1985, when they smashed its stove, tore out its lights, splintered its piano, had sex in its pews, scattered used condoms in front of the pulpit, defecated on a communion cloth and pulled down a crucifix. They chopped off Christ's arms and left them hanging from the nails in his hands.

Some of the congregation fled. A few stayed, but they had no money and little hope.

Into this mayhem stepped Ammie Murray, who had been a labor union business manager and school board chairwoman. She organized a biracial committee of 60 to save St. John Baptist Church. Its members included the sheriff, the chairman of the county council, several political officials, business people, ministers and a rabbi.

Racists called Ammie a "nigger lover." They rammed her car. They killed her dogs. They threatened her grandchildren. She moved, but they found her and shot a bullet through her door. Ammie Murray and her committee would not stop. With donations, they bought lumber, nails, carpet and paint. They scrubbed and drilled and hammered and sawed. They sanded and Sheetrocked and tiled and plumbed. They rebuilt St. John from the foundation up.

The vandals were caught: a teenage woman and three young men. But Ammie's tormentors were never found. When her committee finished the church, it disbanded, but she and its members promised the congregation that if St. John ever needed help again, they would be there.

Between 1986 and 1994, sheriff's deputies arrested more than 200 vandals at St. John Baptist Church. Some were racists, others were thrill-seekers. Then, on Aug. 16, 1995, the church was destroyed the fourth time. Someone burned it yet again, even the pine board that God had saved.

Enter a Stranger From Texas

Ammie Murray wept. Was there any use? Could she rebuild St. John again?

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