Gladys Reeves sat on a single dusty pew next to her grandson, Brandon Reeves, inside God’s Power Church of Christ. But there were no bibles in this church. There was no pulpit, no roof, no classic stained-glass windows casting celestial shadows. Actually, there were no windows at all. On that evening, it was just the thick Macon, Georgia air sitting heavy on top of them, some stacked cinder blocks behind a few new wood beams, and the foundation of God’s Power beneath their feet.
It’s been just over a year since Dylann Roof shot and killed nine churchgoers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal in Charleston, South Carolina. And June 23 marked one year since God’s Power, an all-black church, was burned by an arsonist. There were at least six fires around the south in the week after the Charleston shooting.
#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches surfaced on Twitter; major news outlets posted listicles aggregating information about the fires. Investigations into the churches found that three, including God’s Power, were the work of arsonists, and that three were accidental, either caused by lightning or electrical fires. As Scott Carrier points out on his podcast Home of the Brave, church burnings are fairly common—30 per week—and only 16% set intentionally.
The three church fires set by arsonists weren’t investigated as hate crimes. But whatever the cause, the spate of all-black church burnings did not curb old anxieties of racial hatred in the south. It amplified them. In Macon, the fire didn’t just destabilize the congregation. It stoked a deep-rooted fear—both in them and in black Americans across the country—that there are people who hate them and their ancestors and want nothing more than to fill them with terror. It was a fear that had been confirmed less than a week before the arson, when a white supremacist shot nine churchgoers during bible study. So what were they supposed to think?
“I was in shock, disbelief. I could not believe something like that would happen,” Gladys Reeves said of the fire. “Was it something that was related to what happened in [South] Carolina? We didn’t know. We still don’t know.”
Almost a year later, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms doesn’t know, either. Larry “Nero” Priester, a spokesperson at Atlanta’s branch of ATF, said the agency has concluded that the fire at God’s Power was in fact due to arson. But that’s about it: “We don’t have a suspect and that case is still open,” he said.
When Gladys discovered the fire, she said she hesitated to call her 93-year-old mother, who founded the original church in the 1970s, because of her age. She called the assistant pastor instead, and as the sun began to rise, about 25 family members and congregants gathered outside and watched the church they built in 1993 go up in flames.
On the eve of the anniversary of God’s Power church burning, Gladys was spending time at home in a sleepier, middle-class section of the city. Brandon pulled out his phone to play a music video “Where I’m From” by the rapper Jeezy, a Macon native. The video, Brandon said, has a cameo of the abandoned building across from God’s Power, which sits on the corner of a blighted black neighborhood in the western section of the city.
Birds and crickets chirp at the beginning of the video, a classic southern signifier. Then we see a modest white house appear, but the camera pans out to show the house encased by barbed wire fencing. “Macon, Georgia,” a slate reads. “Ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in Georgia, full of gangs, guns, and drugs.”
As cities go, Macon is poor and black; 54 percent of residents are black and almost 30 percent of the city lives below the poverty line, compared to 14.5 percent nationally. The murder rate in Macon doubled between 2014 and 2015 and a local news report attributed most of the homicides to gangs. Until its fire last year, God’s Power was an oasis—one black family’s church in the midst of violence and poverty.
“I remember being a little child and the church actually rocked,” Brandon recalled about attending service in God’s Power. Back then the church was nothing more than a shack that its founder and Brandon’s great-grandmother, Lillie Powell, purchased in the early 1970s. The family built the bigger church in 1993.
“She says she’s gonna give you the word just like it is in the bible,” Gladys said about her mother, Pastor Lillie Powell. “She’s not gonna sugar coat it, she’s not gonna change it. Whether it’s nobody sittin’ in that church but her grandchildren she’s gonna give you the word just like it is in that bible.”
By the time the church burned last year, the congregation really had dwindled from 300 to about 40 active congregants, mostly comprised of the pastor’s extended family. Gladys attributes the decline to their family members going off to start their own churches.
A 2015 a Pew survey found that historically black church membership has remained stable despite the downward trend in attendance and membership of America’s Christian churches. “The church has played a holistic role as both as the spiritual center, cultural center, and as the political base,” said Josef Sorett, professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. “The fact that it hasn’t declined is in some way a measure of the lack of institutions that support black life.” The church, he said, “continues to stand in the gap.”
The arson of God’s Power was a major loss to the family’s central foundation, and the family now travels to their other church in a town nearly 40 miles away. But it’s not the same. Church members told one story after another about their memories in the church. “My mother one time silenced her daddy in her church,” Gladys said, chuckling. “He had done something that was sinful!” Pastor Powell’s father, who during that time was the church’s assistant pastor, was forbidden to speak for a period of time. “She silenced him,” Gladys repeated, tickled by the thought.
God’s Power is a Pentecostal church, so the services were quite lengthy, but Gladys said they were always a celebration. “Sorta strange to say but all the funerals, joyful,” she said. At her grandmother’s funeral, she remembered that “the people were shouting, joyful, no sadness. They carried out just like you’re in a regular service, just clapping and shouting.”
There have been more somber services, too: Brandon remembered the funeral of his baby daughter, who died before she was a year old. Having the family church to hold him up, he said, was crucial for him during that time.
Sorett said the role of family in the black church takes on a different meaning. “The lines between family proper and alternative kinship structures are blurred,” he said. “These churches are often started in small communities where there’s often just a couple families, so this is one of the ways in which social life is sustained.”
Southern black spirituality has been the central symbol of black life since slavery, but a symbol of free black life since Emancipation. “These churches are a sign and sight and signal of freedom and black independence,” Sorett said. Southern black Christian churches, with influences from West Africa, have always been a space where communities could sing and rejoice for surviving, and pray for a life beyond the chains of white supremacy.
American churches are not generally considered sites of political movement, but black churches are an exception. They famously served as touchstones during the Civil Rights movement. “It wasn’t the majority of black churches that were the center of political activism,” Sorett said, but “often it was a space that was seen as free and autonomous to organize.”
So as the epicenter of black life, culture, and political activity, the black church has always been a target of white supremacists. Perhaps the most well-known attack on a church was at the 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama where members of the Ku Klux Klan placed a bomb underneath the building, killing four young girls. “Hate and Bias Crime: A Reader” tracks black church burnings into four waves: the first at the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866; the second after renewed fervor for the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, coinciding with the film “Birth of a Nation”; the third during the civil rights movement; and the fourth in the 1980s and 1990s which led to legislation around harsher punishment for arsonists with racist intentions.
The attack on Charleston’s AME church last year was a continuation of the centuries-long targeting of black churches. The shooter, Dylann Roof, wrote in a manifesto posted on his website: “Negroes have lower Iqs, lower impulse control, and higher testosterone levels in generals [sic],” the manifesto declares. “These three things alone are a recipe for violent behavior.” The shooting of nine churchgoers came during the height of a new black civil rights movement. Black Lives Matter, started by three black queer women and centered around the advancement of all black Americans, has been a movement that has largely taken place outside the black church.
But Black Lives Matter is a highly amorphous movement. There is no single group that claims brick-and-mortar buildings across the country. For many, Black Lives Matter is more of a rallying cry, one that has mostly been centered on social media and occasionally in the streets, reignited every time there is a high-profile police involved death of a black person. It’s still the black church that remains one of the most tangible symbols of black life.
And so it remains a target for white supremacists' hate.
Gladys, her family members, and her fellow congregants are still adamant about not wanting to believe or assume the arson was the work of a white supremacist. Still, Gladys admitted, “the timing was just weird.” Mostly the congregation is looking for some sort of answer. “We are a peaceful congregation. We wanted to know why,” said the church’s assistant pastor, Jeanette Dudley. “There is no animosity towards whoever did it. But we do want to know why this happened.”
But even without answers, the churchgoers are beginning to move on and rebuild. Gladys frequently emails with the church’s insurance company, which is still conducting its own investigation a year later. “One reason we didn’t get started on the church was we kept trying to wait,” she said, hoping that all the money from the insurance company would appear. But churches from all over the country donated more than $150,000 to the church and Gladys was anxious to show them that the money is being used to rebuild. “We struggling, suffering, waiting,” Gladys said, sighing deeply. “Somebody donates money to you and you can’t even give them a report on what you’re doing.”
Over the last month, with the help of a local minister and contractor named Shawn Cooper, the work has begun. “When there’s trouble in the world, [church] is a place to come and be free,” said Cooper, who is doing the work at a reduced price. “It’s a place to get education, to learn, to really get equipped to handle the world, to get away from all the craziness that is happening. All the killings and shootings.”
Over dinner at a buffet chain called the Golden Coral, Brandon explained their plans for the abandoned building across the street, the vandalized one that appeared in Jeezy’s video. “I want to have a 24-hour center where kids can come,” he said. “Cause I know me growing up in that area the trouble you can get into over there.” But first on the agenda, the grandmother and grandson agree, is rebuilding God’s Power Church of Christ.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.