The Day The Church Burned
At the corner of Stockton and Wessel stands the greatest monument to white people in the city of Angelo. The tall white spire of the steeple extends high into the blue sky. People who visit say that spire reaches into the heavens and allows God a direct ladder to the sanctuary. In the sanctuary, sculpted dark wood pews with maroon cushioned seats perch near neatly-shelved Bibles and hymnbooks. A stained glass feature looms high above the pulpit, Jesus’ hands upturned and beckoning.
On April 15, the good people of Angelo filed in for worship services. They greeted one another with handshakes and smiles. Angelo Church of God was created nearly 100 years ago when people of Europe imported themselves to the area in search of better work and greater acceptance. Other than their white skin, they tugged along the beliefs of Christianity, bringing from their homeland beliefs that could not be left behind.
Pastor Jonathan Ross walked down the central aisle to begin the service, white robes adorned with a crucifix and trailed by two deacons carrying a cross adorned with thorns. It was the time of Easter when the story of resurrection would be told. Congregants went through the ritualistic tasks of communion and common hymns to services at this time of year. Not a dark face heard Pastor Ross’ sermon that day about the resurrection of a white man from the dead and that white man’s symbolism of absolution of sin. A final hymn was hummed by the elderly who couldn’t hold a tune and the congregants streamed out into the bright sun of a spring day.
Across town, another religious service was happening at Mason and Meadows. In a building weathered down to gray wood slats, congregants sang loudly, clapped, cheered, and moved with energy. The building’s nearly 150 year history was well-documented in Angelo. Started by native peoples in conjunction with a band of early settlers, Round Rock Church was well-known for the variety of faces that settled in the pews. Settled, that is, until the energy of celebration of the Lord brought them to their feet. Interspersed among the silent ritual pieces were loud, dynamic hymns and a blistering sermon message by seventy-five-year-old Pastor James Dickinson. Dickinson gesticulated and moved about as he told the story of Jesus and how Jesus had died for all people. he spoke of how Jesus looked into the eyes of all colors and realized those eyes were the same. Easter was a time of celebration, he said, and celebrate they’d do. He told the congregation he’d invited the people of Adaf Mosque to join them after the service for Round Rock’s Annual Meal of Celebration. The congregants filed out into the bright April sun to find people they didn’t know, but who warmly opened their arms and held them tight like babes. It was a celebration like none Round Rock had ever hosted.
The feast was full of southern cooked items and fresh vegetables from locals. As the two congregations ate and communed as one, sunlight reaching down and warming each equally, conversations quickly turned to the mosque’s recovery from recent vandals that had entered and painted racist epithets on the walls.
Two particular men of interest in a fully open conversation were Mohammad Sidiq and John Robinson.
“Well, glory be that we were all able to repent and recover.”
“Yes, but aren’t you worried about future attacks?”
“We can only control ourselves. We have hope.”
“And the men the police caught. Will the Mosque press charges?”
“Yes, we feel we must press charges. We must send a message that it is not OK to attack us, to attack our beliefs. However, we forgive them their actions.”
“Forgive them? How so? I can’t imagine a pathway.”
“My brother, it is within you, within all of us. If we live our lives awaiting attack, then we have cornered ourselves.”
Meanwhile, only three blocks away from Round Rock was Jerome Lang. If he’d been interested in worship, he’d have joined Round Rock. Some of his neighbors were members. Jerome didn’t have an affiliation. His story was long and sad. Once both his parents died in his native Antigua, at 17 he moved to the new country simply to survive. Out of work and penniless, he’d landed in Angelo. Now 23, he’d worked some odd jobs over the years, enough to get by as they said in these parts, but not enough to do what might be called make a life for himself. Jerome saw the gleaming white steeple of Angelo Church of God, the entire side of town where the church perched reflecting the sun and shining with riches. From his old wooden box seat across town, he couldn’t see Angelo Church of God, but he could feel it. He could feel his stomach turn circles. He could feel his blood pressure rise.
On the morning of April 17, just as the sun poked above the horizon, all of Angelo, all 50 some thousand of them, heard the sirens. The screaming of multiple fire engines. For those near Angelo Church of God, the sirens got louder and converged.
Pastor Jonathan Ross awoke to the smell of smoke. He looked out his window to the adjacent lot where the church was and he saw disaster. Flames were climbing the walls and reaching upward upward along the spire of the steeple.
Ross quickly dressed and stepped outside. He watched as four fire trucks arrived and spit piteous streams of water at the flames like waterguns. Those on the other sides of town followed the sirens and the now towering column of black smoke. They watched hopelessly along with Ross as flames licked greedily at history. Mohammad Sidiq and John Robinson found themselves together once again, observers of another place of worship disaster. They watched with the others as the steeple collapsed down upon the sanctuary and continued the burning of books of worship previously stored safely there.
“There goes almost a hundred years of history,” said Robinson.
“What kind of church is this?,” asked Sidiq.
“Christian,” replied Robinson. “The centerpiece of the town for years. Where beliefs are formed.”
“Where are beliefs formed? Where do they reside?”, asked Sidiq.
“They’ve been housed in this church. Established by its white European members. Taken as gospel for the town.”
“And this is it? This is the place where beliefs live?”
“And you’ve accepted it?”
“Why accept it? Do your beliefs not hold deep meaning for you?”
It took several hours for the church to burn fully to the ground. By that time, thousands had gathered. Many were weeping and consoling. The national media had arrived, multiple trucks now sending out satellite messages about the demise of a church.
“Did the national media show when the mosque was vandalized?”
“No. Mayor Bradley didn’t even show.”
“You see, now both you and I have made our point. You live in a world where no one wants to accept your beliefs as a story. I live in that same world. We are forced to ascribe to the story of others. It’s all about who the designated storyteller is.”
At the same time, both men turned to walk away from the scene. Reality was too powerful.