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Alabama Church-Goers `Just Want to Know Why'

February 09, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

PANOLA, Ala. — Galilee Road, a dirt strip in the backwoods of rural Alabama, winds for a mile past gnarled trees, a field of horses and a derelict shack until it ends at the ruins of Galilee Baptist Church.

The church was burned to its concrete foundation Tuesday morning. All that remains of the small, wood-frame building are its front steps and metal handrail.

"It was just a nice little wooden church," said Bob Little, Galilee's pastor, as he watched federal agents shovel through the ashes. "No one ever got here by haphazardly stumbling upon it. I just want to know why. Why Galilee?"

Galilee Baptist Church and three others in western Alabama were set on fire Tuesday -- less than a week after suspicious blazes damaged five other churches in the central part of the state.

All four churches burned Tuesday were located off rural roads. All were Baptist with poor African American congregations. Two of them -- Galilee and Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church, near Boligee -- were destroyed.

On Wednesday, Gov. Bob Riley surveyed the damage at each church. Standing on the smoldering ashes of Galilee, he put his arm around Little.

"It's hard to imagine anyone would do this, especially in a little area like this," Riley said. "The state of Alabama's going to do everything it can to get everyone back to church."

For more than 100 years, Little's ancestors have attended Galilee Baptist Church. His grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in the grassy clearing beside the church.

Little's mother, Hazel White, saw the ruins of the church for the first time Wednesday.

"My brother offered to bring me by yesterday, but I didn't want to look at it," she said. "I wasn't ready."

White was born and raised in Panola, a tiny town about 45 miles southwest of Tuscaloosa that consists of little more than a post office, derelict brick buildings and an empty, graffiti-covered grocery store.

She said her family had worked hard to expand the church. They built the main wooden frame 67 years ago, and put up additions over the years.

"First it was just a common building, but we made it bigger and bigger," she said. "We brought the steeples up and up."

For years, White raised funds, taught Sunday school and gave her son picture frames and flowers to decorate the church.

"It's just sad," she said. "We can't understand why anyone would burn it."

Others in Galilee wondered the same thing. And they also wondered why someone would burn their church and pass others by. Between Galilee Baptist Church and Spring Valley Baptist Church, another of those burned, Panola United Methodist Church remained unscathed.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives -- which has assigned 100 agents to the investigation -- is looking into the possibility that a local resident could be responsible.

Austin Banks, a senior special agent for the bureau, said a stranger would find it hard to negotiate the winding country roads in the dark.

"Galilee is back in the woods, in the middle of nowhere," he said. "The perpetrator is likely to be someone in the community who knows this area and has passed through it many times before."

The bureau is appealing to members of the community to help in the investigation.

Willie Speight, who lives closest to Galilee Baptist Church and is the assistant pastor, said he heard nothing Monday night.

"If I had heard a noise I would have been right behind them to see who it was," said Speight, 54, who lives in a white double-wide trailer on the corner of Ginhouse and Galilee roads. Typically, he said, only members of the congregation and deer hunters drove the roads near the church.

All of Sumter County, where Galilee Baptist is located, is quiet and rural. Sheriff Johnny L. Hatter said the county usually had one homicide a year, a few burglaries and some drug problems.

Agriculture is still a main source of income in Sumter County, which has a tradition of farming and cotton production dating to the plantation system. Many local residents work for Chemical Waste Management at the nation's largest waste treatment, storage and disposal facility, which was established in Emelle, near Panola, in 1978.

The 2000 census put the population of Sumter County at 14,798. More than 70% of its residents are black. The median household income is $18,911 -- less than half the national average.

Hatter said he did not want to make the assumption that the arsonist was a local resident.

"In this day and age," he said, "you can get on the computer and click on a map and pick on any church."

The FBI is looking into whether the fires are civil rights violations, and the state and federal governments have offered $10,000 in rewards for leads.

Little, who plans to build a new church closer to Panola's town center, said Sunday's service would be held on the grass clearing in front of his church.

"I'll just use the old concrete steps for the pulpit," he said. "We'll pray to the Lord to make it a beautiful day."

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