The morning of January 2, 1985, started out ordinarily enough for Ammie as she maneuvered her Topaz sedan into its customary parking space behind the small office building where she worked. Winter’s chill made the air crisp and glittered the ground with frost. She looked forward to getting into the office and finding out how her close friend and coworker, Barbara Simmons, had enjoyed the holidays.
Gathering her purse and briefcase, she thought back to the day seven years earlier when she first met Barbara. The shy, full-figured African-American woman had come into Ammie’s office looking for a job. With large, golden hoop earrings that swayed in cadence with her words, Barbara said, “Joanne Helms is a friend, and she told me you may need some help over here.”
Indeed, Ammie had mentioned to their common acquaintance, who ran a store and restaurant where Barbara worked part-time, that work was running her ragged. In a man’s world of labor-union organizing, she was the business manager for a laborers’ union and office manager for an ironworkers’ union. She loved working for the two unions, which shared an office across the bridge from downtown Columbia. However, between her career, a recent marriage, raising two teenage daughters from her first marriage, maintaining a home, and being active in Democratic Party events, she was barely keeping up.
Ammie explained to Barbara that Charles Murray, who headed the union, needed to be consulted before any hiring decisions were made. As they continued to talk, Ammie guessed that Barbara, at best, only had a high school education, but there was something about her easy smile, warm openness, and shy but determined manner that Ammie liked. She hired her on the spot, doubting that Charles would take issue with her spontaneous decision. After all, in addition to being president of the union, he was also her husband.
Barbara came in each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. In the beginning, she mainly cleaned the offices, but as time passed, Ammie taught her how to type, file, and help out with other clerical tasks.
The two women often had the place to themselves, and it was during those quiet periods that they opened up to each other about their lives. A strong friendship soon replaced what had been only a business relationship—though Barbara insisted on calling her Miss Ammie, no matter how many times Ammie asked her to drop the “Miss.” As far as she was concerned, she and Barbara were equals, regardless of the differences in their racial, educational, and economic backgrounds.
They shared an admiration for Mary Modjeska Monteith Simkins, an African-American octogenarian who had been a local civil rights leader for decades. They looked up to Ms. Simkins because of how she had broken away from the conventional roles that black women of her generation were normally relegated to, and she became a trailblazing advocate for minorities, the poor, and the disenfranchised. No one was too lowly for her aid and no one too high for her sharp, witty criticism. Even at her advanced age, she still spoke occasionally at various functions around the state, and whenever she did, Ammie, Barbara, and Barbara’s husband, Willie, went together to see her.
As one of the few female union officials in the country, Ammie particularly identified with the difficulty of adopting an untraditional role. She also had a high profile in the state Democratic Party. All of this resulted in her being under constant pressure, and Barbara continually looked for ways to cheer her up. Like many Southern women, Barbara often showed her affection through cooking. Ammie would frequently come into the office to discover that Barbara had placed a plate of hot, deliciously fried fish on her desk or had fixed her a ham and buttermilk biscuit made from scratch. Other times Barbara would put a few pieces of candy or a little card on the desk—never anything expensive, but always from the heart. Sometimes the small gifts bordered on being gags. Once, Barbara found a little plastic pig, put it in ajar, and poured some dry pinto beans around it. The gift went on Ammie’s desk with a small hand-lettered sign—PORK AND BEANS.
Both women were overjoyed when Barbara and Willie discovered they were going to have another child. They already had two sons—Willie Lee and Jonathan—along with Barbara’s teenage daughter, Robin.
Ammie couldn’t stop herself from worrying about the pregnancy; Barbara was in her late thirties and nearly fourteen years had passed since her last pregnancy. Although she wasn’t much older than Barbara, both joked that she was acting like a mother hen because of how she nagged Barbara to take her vitamins and get plenty of rest.
When Willie called to tell Ammie that Barbara had given birth to a baby boy they named Michael, she couldn’t wait to get to the hospital to see them. A nurse blocked her as she stepped out of the elevator at the hospital’s maternity ward. “Visitation is for family only,” she said.
“I am family,” Ammie told her.
Eyeing her blond hair and blue eyes skeptically, the nurse asked, “What relation?”
“Grandmother to the baby,” she answered, sailing past without a backward glance.
Barbara got a big laugh out of the escapade and added, “We’re salt and pepper, Miss Ammie. We season each other.”
After getting out of the car, Ammie walked to the rear entrance of the office and wondered what surprise Barbara would have on her desk that morning. It hadn’t been long since Barbara had returned to work from maternity leave, and Ammie hoped that the Simmonses had enjoyed Michael’s first Christmas.
She opened the door. The office was strangely quiet and devoid of the aromas of Barbara’s good cooking and freshly brewed coffee.
“Barbara?” she called out.
“Are you here?”
Looking around, she saw that the empty room appeared exactly as it had before they closed it for the holidays.
Walking in the next room, she called her friend’s name louder. Again, silence greeted her.
Growing worried, she searched another room and another, until she ended up in the conference area. She found her there.
Barbara sat slumped over in one of the fold-out metal chairs, her face buried in her arms which she gripped tightly as if in great pain.
Ammie dropped to her knees to face her. “Barbara! What’s wrong?”
Slowly, with obvious effort, Barbara raised her head, tears streaming down her dark face. She was so distraught, she couldn’t speak. Ammie knew something horrible had happened.
“Is it Mikey?” she asked, using her nickname for Michael.
She shook her head, tears steadily flowing.
Ammie asked about the other three children and Willie. Barbara shook her head after each name, and Ammie was nearly in tears herself trying to figure out what had happened. In all the years they had been friends, she had never seen Barbara so upset.
“It’s the church,” Barbara was finally able to say.
“St. John?” Ammie asked. She had heard Barbara frequently speak of her small Baptist church out in the country. Ammie had never seen the church but had helped her make flyers or programs whenever any special events were held there.
Nodding, Barbara said, “Somebody’s hurt the church real bad.”
Barbara agreed to take Ammie down to St. John. They went later that afternoon, allowing time for Barbara to pick up Robin and Michael.
As Ammie followed her to the church, she realized she had driven past the turnoff to the dirt road leading toward St. John probably hundreds of times. Her mother’s people had lived a few miles away since colonial times. During her frequent visits to them, she had never noticed the turnoff because it was nearly hidden by pine and scrub trees, and it bore no street sign, only a black-and-white numerical county marker.
After less than one hundred yards, the blacktop disintegrated into a hard-packed dirt road that was so brutal, the entire Topaz shook and barely held together as she followed the cloud of dust rising behind Barbara’s car. She felt like she was driving over endless rows of railroad tracks.
The denseness of the trees and brush choked out even the sounds of traffic from nearby Interstate 26, and the tops of the trees intertwined to create live canopy. Had she freed her imagination, she could picture herself in another time, before the frenetic pace of modern living.
They arrived at the church, a simple whitewashed cinder-block building set in a clearing beneath spiraling longleaf pines. The first thing she noticed as she got out of her car was that all the bulbs on the light poles had been shot out. Looking around, she saw that every single window of the church and the adjoining Sunday school building was shattered. The ground was covered with bullet casings, crumpled beer cans, and cheap liquor bottles. “KKK” had been carved in huge letters across the wooden front doors that were chopped up and barely hanging by the hinges.
Taking a deep breath, Ammie stepped inside. Still shaken, Barbara remained inside her car with her two children.
More bullet casings crunched beneath her feet. Whoever had done this had shot bullets into the pews, tearing them to pieces and then knocking them over. What they hadn’t shot, they took an ax to. An old woodstove in the corner lay smashed to bits, as did the water cooler in the vestibule. Her heart ached more when she saw what they had done to the piano. As she was a former music teacher, pianos were precious to her. Someone had chopped it up, breaking it apart and even chopping the strings inside. It was destroyed so badly, she couldn’t tell whether or not it had been an upright.
The vandals had chopped the chairs on the pulpit, including the pastor’s. They got hold of the crucifix, chopped at the figure of Christ, and left his arms to dangle from the nails. They threw what was left of his body on the floor before the altar amid condoms—used ones. She struggled to keep her composure and hold down the nausea rising in her throat.
Barbara summoned the courage to get out of her car and followed Ammie at a distance along with the kids. They trailed her into the Sunday school building.
Ammie felt acutely nauseated when she saw what the vandals had done to the Communion cloth. She remembered Barbara speaking of how the ladies of the church had raised funds to order it and dressed in their finest to drive up to Columbia and buy it from Tapp’s, an upscale department store. The Communion cloth had been removed from its storage area, spread on the floor, and defecated on.
Not able to take it anymore, Ammie turned to Barbara and the children. “Let me walk out in the cemetery for a while, you know, kind of give me a few minutes to myself.”
It only got worse. One of the church members had died recently. The vandals had driven onto his grave and spun their tires through the freshly dug soil until his vault showed through and bore tread marks. Ammie ran to the edge of the cemetery and vomited.
She sat on a stump near the border of the cemetery, trying to gather enough strength to stand, and wondered what kind of people could do something so monstrous. More important, what could she do about it?
Steadying herself, she forced herself up. Though still weak from nausea, she managed to find Barbara, who had taken the kids back to the car and sat waiting for her. Ammie looked down into the frightened face of her friend. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m going to do something. I’ll call you later on tonight.”
As Barbara drove home, she realized she had broken what fellow congregation members called the “silent tongue,” the agreement not to speak to anyone outside of St. John about the mounting vandalism that had now culminated in the complete destruction of the church. They had pleaded with her not to tell for fear of what the church’s attackers would do in retaliation. She understood their fear. Out of the forty-six counties in South Carolina, the Klan was strongest in Lexington County, where the majority of the congregation lived and where the church was located. When the KKK, formed in Tennessee by six ex-Confederate soldiers, first entered the state in 1868, it gained a foothold in the upstate, where fewer African Americans lived and could mount an armed resistance. For example, in York County, which bordered North Carolina, nearly 80 percent of all white males were Klansmen by 1870. As decades passed, its strength spread, and even public officials such as Gov. Coleman Blease (1911-1915) openly advocated the lynching of African Americans as “necessary and good.” Elderly members of St. John had vivid memories of the “Invisible Empire” attacking and murdering blacks with impunity.
At its height in the mid-1920s, between four and five million Americans belonged to the Klan. Despite the hate organization losing strength and splintering into various factions, it still remained a dangerous force within the state, particularly in areas like Lexington County, historically sparsely populated by blacks. Indeed, blacks only composed about 12 percent of the county. Just two other counties—Pickens and Oconee, both in the upstate—counted lower percentages of African-American residents. Of the two Klan factions remaining active in the state, one of them, the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was based in Lexington. The other was the Keystone Klan, centered in the upstate county of Laurens. It was difficult for law enforcement officials to pinpoint accurately how many members belonged to either cell, but it appeared that the Christian Knights was the more dominant of the two. Even as recent as the late 1970s, they drew two to three hundred people to their rallies.
Before their Grand Dragon, Horace King, helped start the Christian Knights in the state, he belonged to the United Klans of America. Based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the UKA was the most violent of the more than one hundred Klan factions scattered across the country. Its members were responsible for the 1961 attacks against the Freedom Riders, the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church—in which four young black girls died—and the 1965 murder of Viola Liuzzo as she drove Selma civil rights marchers. King found Lexington County to be fertile ground for recruiting poor whites looking for someone to blame for their troubles. The fact that he lived only about a fifteen-minute drive from St. John and held Klan meetings within a few miles of church was more than unnerving to the isolated congregation.
But while Barbara recognized the reasons for keeping the “silent tongue,” it had not been making things better through the years, only worse. She had no choice but to break it and hope the others would understand. She hoped they would realize she would do whatever she could to protect them and St. John.
She had fallen in love with the church and its people the first time Willie took her there. It had been his maternal grandparents’ place of worship, and he had attended it since childhood along with his brothers and sisters. He told her how he grew up watching his granddaddy, who was the senior deacon, open the church up every Sunday and prepare for services. In the winter, that meant chopping and toting wood to feed the potbellied stove so that the place would be nice and warm. In the summer, he opened the windows and made sure there were enough paper fans from a local funeral home for people to cool themselves with. When he died, a fellow named Roscoe Sulton took over his church duties and also became a surrogate grandparent to Willie and his siblings.
St. John’s congregation had always been small. On a good Sunday, a few dozen people came. Most of them were frail and bent with age—children or grandchildren of the slaves who lay in the cemetery that formed a semicircle around the sides and rear of the cinder-block building. Keeping with old ways brought from West Africa, some of the graves were still decorated with plates, silverware, clocks, and other favorite personal objects of the dead below, things that helped them journey from this world to the next in peace. The items were purposely broken to free the person’s spirit of the need to return. Breaking the things or punching holes in them also severed death’s chain, preventing other family members from immediately following the deceased. Because West Africans viewed the world of the dead as being a watery, upside-down one beneath that of the living, it was important that graves be located near water—in St. John’s case, near the Congaree River—and that the deceased’s broken possessions be turned upside down. Clocks, set to the time of death, symbolized that while alive, blacks were bound to the oppressive schedules of whites, but through dying, were finally free.
To Barbara, sometimes it seemed as if time had forgotten about the tiny house of worship located in the middle of what had once been a large plantation that stretched to the banks of the Congaree, which flowed about one mile behind the cemetery. After talking to Willie, Deacon Sulton, and others about recent changes, she wished that time had indeed left St. John alone. The recent years had been cruel.
St. John had enjoyed a serene existence for generations until Carolina Eastman, a large chemical plant, came in 1962 and bought up 2,300 acres just beyond St. John’s 1.5 acres. In an effort to lure the plant to Lexington, state government agreed to reroute Old State Road, the road that used to run in front of the church. They dead-ended the road right in front of the churchyard. Traffic that used to run down it was siphoned off to Old Pine Plain Road to the north. The change left St. John isolated and vulnerable. Trouble started not long after.
It hadn’t been so bad in the beginning. The vandalism seemed the work of mischievous kids with too much time on their hands rather than that of anyone malicious. Church members would make their way to services—held the second and fourth Sunday of each month—to find the grounds littered with empty soda and beer cans, cigarette butts, and food wrappers. More of the same was found inside along with crudely spray-painted images on the walls of things like stick figures, a school bus, an umbrella.
They started locking the place up at the end of services. The break-ins continued. They put stronger padlocks on the doors only to find them broken and pried open. Rosa Bell Eleazar, who grew up attending St. John and lived next door, spoke to Barbara and the others of lying in bed at night and hearing the sounds of cars driving up to the church at all hours of the night—and of doors slamming, laughter, and talking and the church bell ringing when it wasn’t supposed to. She saw lights flashing, too.
She would lie in bed, nearly too terrified to breathe. Like most of the rest of the congregation, she was up in years. She had to think about not only her own safety, but that of her small grandsons who lived with her, as well. Yes, there was the police, but what would happen when they weren’t around or couldn’t respond quickly enough? And what would they care about a handful of poor black folks out in the middle of the woods? She lay in bed waiting for dawn and did the only thing she knew to do—keep the “silent tongue.”
There was no order to the pattern of the trouble. Sometimes incidents happened in quick succession. Other times, uneventful months went by. But there was always a next time, and it would always be when no one was around to discover who was doing it or why. Then, things started getting smashed and stolen. The windows were favorite targets for attacks, and the church’s only source of water—an outdoor water pump—was the favorite of thieves. Vandals also assaulted the cemetery with what looked like four-wheelers or dirt bikes to rip up the grass, knock over and shatter tombstones, and destroy mementos and flowers laid on graves.
When she joined St. John and learned of what had been going on, Barbara was conflicted about what to do. While she thought telling the authorities would help, what if it didn’t and someone got hurt or killed because of her advice? On the other hand, keeping silent appeared to be increasing the danger, too. The only other way out was for everyone to abandon the church, but she knew that was not an option. That church meant everything to the few who clung to it. They would rather die and be buried along with their slave ancestors than leave it. Right or wrong, they wanted to keep the silent tongue, and she felt she had to respect their wishes. Being a newcomer, she believed it wasn’t her place to go against them.
Willie was optimistic about the trouble nearing its end, and his optimism encouraged her. The husband of one of the members knew how to install water pumps, and he promised to fix the broken one. Once he did that, Willie planned to build a small cinder-block enclosure over the pump to protect it from any more attacks. He would also use more of the cinder block to build a Sunday school building. That would pick everybody’s spirits up and maybe help convince some former members, who had left because of the vandalism, to return. Meanwhile, he would replace the broken glass. Pretty soon, the church would be as good as new, and before long, whoever was bothering them would lose interest and move on.
He desperately wanted to believe that, and so did Barbara. She helped him clear away the glass and clean up. She threw herself into teaching Sunday school, serving on the usher board, being the church’s secretary, and doing anything else they needed her to do. Because she and Willie were one of the few couples in the congregation with cars, they picked up many of the members before church and took them back home after the services.
As he promised, Robert Clybourn installed a new water pump. He was a member of another church, but his wife, Bessie, had been attending St. John for years. She came down before services on Fridays with her children to give the place a good cleaning although she worked two, sometimes three jobs and had her own home to keep up.
After putting in a full day at his job as a crane operator at a steel mill and grabbing some of Barbara’s cooking, Willie came over during the evenings and worked on the water pump house and Sunday school building. One evening, he discovered the water pump smashed again. Someone had even stolen some of the cinder blocks.
He got more and had Mr. Clybourn return and repair the pump again. Once he finished construction, Willie gave both structures a dazzling coat of whitewash. After putting a sturdy padlock on the Sunday school building, he put one on the pump house, feeling sure that now the church’s water supply was secured.
A small stream called Tom’s Creek fed St. John’s well. They used it to fill the outdoor baptismal pool that Willie had also built. Before they had a water pump, members used to tote water from the creek in buckets to the baptismal pool. It was some of the best, purest water Barbara had ever tasted. It was so good that people from other churches asked to be baptized there. Rosa Bell Eleazar got baptized in it twice.
The attacks worsened as the months passed. During one Sunday service, Barbara sat in church listening to elderly Rev. John Shepherd deliver his sermon. Even though he stood only a few feet in front of the congregation, his voice had faded so badly as he aged that they pooled together some money for a microphone and amplifier for him to use in order to hear him. As he clutched the mike and weakly preached into it, Barbara heard an unmistakable sound—a gunshot. She looked around and could tell by the faces of the others that they had heard it, too.
She knew the area was popular with hunters. Because of the surrounding woods and nearness to the Congaree, the area was chock-full of deer, rabbit, duck, and other game. During hunting season, it wasn’t uncommon to hear distant shots, but this didn’t sound like that. It sounded like somebody aiming at St. John.
It had gotten to the point that some of the assailants grew bold enough to come out during the day—mainly white, pimply-faced teenage boys who looked like they got their bravado from six-packs of beer. Mrs. Eleazar had been out chopping wood in her front yard when a carload of them raced past her, hurling obscenities and raising a cloud of dust from the dirt road.
Bessie Clybourn was getting to where she was afraid to come down Fridays to clean and prepare the church for Sunday services. While cleaning, she could hear gunfire, and later, she, Barbara, Willie, Deacon Sulton, and others discovered bullet holes in the entrance doors and pews.
Toward the close of one service, Barbara’s sister-in-law, Pat Lowman, heard odd noises coming from outside that didn’t sound like the deer or other animals that occasionally strayed onto the property. Sliding off the pew, she tried not to disrupt Reverend Shepherd’s sermon as she tiptoed to the front doors.
Opening the doors and stepping out into a cold drizzle, Pat felt her heart leap up into her throat. She found herself facing a small gang of white teens unloading dirt bikes from the back of a pickup. The boys looked hardened beyond their years. Cigarettes dangled from the corners of their mouths. They had bandanas tied around their heads, and their faces bore angry, sullen expressions. Some girls had come with them. Ignoring the freezing, wet weather, they wore nothing but skimpy tube tops and too-short cutoffs.
In an instant, thoughts flashed through Pat’s mind. Should she confront them alone or call for help? These kids could be strung out on drugs or have weapons. If she called out, she could be placing the others inside in danger.
She stepped out onto the porch, forcing herself to smile while quickly praying, “Good Lord, what am I walking into?”
“Hey!” she greeted them. “What are y’all doing here? Don’t you know services are going on?” She was so frightened that even the hairs on her legs felt like they were standing on end.
“Y’all got church going on?” one of the boys asked, a note of skepticism in his voice.
“Yeah. Didn’t you see our cars parked out front?”
Shrugging, another said, “We thought y’all had just come out to have some fun, like us.”
“No, no. We’re here having church. We’ve got a preacher, people, kids—we’re having services.” Feeling a little more confident, she tried taking a humorous, motherly approach. She turned to the girls. “My goodness, y’all must be freezing. You’re going to catch pneumonia without a sweater or something.” She took off her coat and wrapped it around one of the girls, who started giggling.
“Don’t you know she needs something on, as cold as it is out here?” Pat asked a boy standing next to them. Then she said, “Listen, I don’t want any of you kids to get in trouble. You’d better go before someone else comes out here.”
With relief, she watched them grudgingly load the bikes back onto the truck as the girl returned her coat. The kids piled into the truck and drove away just before the service ended.
Neither her relief nor anyone else’s lasted long.
Dusk was setting in during a late afternoon service. The congregation heard a car roar by. The crash of glass followed as a bullet smashed through one of the windows, whizzed right above their heads, and then thumped into the wall behind the pulpit.
That was the last straw for Bessie Clybourn. She told Barbara, “I’m not coming back here to get my head shot off. You ought to get yourself and your kids up out of here and leave, too, before you get killed.”
Some others left, also. Occasionally, visitors came, but once they saw the vandalism or heard the gunfire, they never returned. A part of Barbara thought Bessie was right; but she also wanted to hold out hope that somehow things would get better.
It appeared to her that Deacon Sulton was taking it harder than anybody. Like the other members—especially Willie—she had grown close to the old man who had become the spiritual pillar of the besieged house of worship and had used his savings and Social Security pension to buy the church its piano. He arrived before everyone else to open the building and was often the first to discover evidence of the latest attack. Barbara hated to see tears fill his eyes after each assault. She watched him lead them in song as the tears streamed down his dark, timeworn face. Out in the cemetery, he often walked from one desecrated grave to the next, sobbing.
With Bessie Clybourn gone, Barbara took over cleaning the church and getting it ready for the two Sunday services each month. She usually went down on Saturdays. As the vandalism escalated, she never knew what to expect. Some days, she would come and see only minor damage, like the Communion candles broken in half, paper fans torn apart, or the offering plates thrown out in the churchyard along with empty beer cans, cheap liquor bottles, remnants of fast-food meals, and other trash. Other times, urine and feces soiled the entrance porch. Inside, she discovered used condoms on the carpet and tried to force from her mind what kinds of disgusting acts had taken place before the pulpit and the reasons why anyone would choose a church as the place to perform them.
What she often saw made her suspect that Satanists were among the church’s many assailants. She would find mutilated animals or parts of them strewn throughout the church or floating amidst rotten leaves in the outdoor baptismal pool. It looked like someone had dipped a finger in blood to write on the walls “Kill,” “Death,” and “XXX.” Blood was smeared on the carpet, too. Whether it was from a human or an animal, Barbara couldn’t be sure, though she guessed it was from some type of bird because feathers were frequently around. Sometimes, the carpet was powdered with what looked to her to be flour or cornmeal, and pages were ripped from the church’s big Bible.
While cleaning, she was careful not to let the condoms, blood, or dead animals come in contact with her skin. She always wore rubber gloves and used sheets of plastic or old newspaper to remove the filth. Because the water pump had been stolen again, she had to bring water in plastic jugs from her home. Sometimes she brought her older kids and they scrubbed, shampooed, swept, vacuumed, polished, and dusted as fast as they could, hoping each time to finish before carloads of toughs started making their rounds. There wasn’t much variation in the things they would spew before speeding away in souped-up cars: “Niggers!” “Go home, niggers!” “We hate niggers!” “We’re going to blow your church up, niggers!”
Quickly going to her old sedan, Barbara thought it no wonder the congregation was petrified with fear. This couldn’t go on much longer. Her children didn’t even want to come to St. John anymore. The windows were being broken out so frequently that Willie kept a supply of glass panes at the house. Some of the keys on the precious piano that Deacon Sulton had sacrificed to buy were so damaged, the piano couldn’t be played anymore. They had to sing all the hymns a cappella. Hardly a month passed that they didn’t discover new slugs studding the pews, walls, or pulpit. It was only a matter of time before a bullet hit and killed a member or one of the attackers made good on the threat to dynamite the place, maybe with all of them inside.
Even given the present situation, Deacon Sulton was already dying from pure heartache. Barbara didn’t know how much more the eighty-four-year-old could take. As Thanksgiving of 1984 approached, he told Willie, “Son, sometimes you’ve got to stand and stand alone, but God will be with you. Whatever you do, keep the doors of St. John open.”
Willie gave him his word that he would. Barbara did the same.
She arrived at the church early with her kids the next Sunday service, noticing that Deacon Sulton and his wife, Mary, apparently had gotten there moments earlier and were walking toward the building. Gathering up the new Sunday school books she needed to distribute, her purse, and a pitcher of water so that she and others would have something to drink despite the inoperable water pump, she shooed the kids toward the entrance. She had barely made it past the doors before she heard Deacon Sulton’s screams from inside the church. In her rush to get to him, she nearly toppled over him. He had fallen to his knees amidst the shattered glass blanketing the floor. Barbara looked up, seeing the latest destruction that had rendered the old man incoherent. Nearly every window of the place was shattered; pews had been knocked over, the pastor’s chair slit apart. She noticed that the front doors had almost been busted from their frames.
“Just look!” Deacon Sulton cried out. “Just look! Why do they keep doing this? Why, Lord? Why? This isn’t right!”
His screams and crying caused others, pulling up in their cars, to race inside. Hyperventilating, Mary Sulton collapsed onto the floor beside her husband. Barbara tried to help pull the elderly couple from the floor. The broken shards of glass had cut through their clothes, imbedding into their flesh and drawing blood. Oblivious of his wounds, Deacon Sulton sobbed in anguish, his entire body shaking.
Barbara and others carried the two outside and got them into a car. Continuing to sob as he was being driven away, Deacon Sulton cried that he didn’t want to leave his church.
Those who remained gathered outside under the trees in a loosely formed circle. Many of them eyed Barbara anxiously, imploring her not to break the silent tongue. They would fix everything that had been broken. The Lord wouldn’t allow “the badness” to keep on much longer, surely. Barbara wondered if they were trying to convince her or themselves.
She could make no promises about remaining silent. Her kids—Robin, Willie Lee, and Jonathan—asked her why no one spoke out about what was going on. When she was only able to give them vague excuses, they responded to her, “Mom, maybe you need to do something.”
Willie and a couple of men quickly patched the church back up, but her children’s words lodged in her mind.
On November 24, 1985, a few days after the attack, Deacon Sulton died. A heart attack was listed as the cause of death, but Barbara knew what had really killed him. They buried him in the cemetery where he had spent so many hours weeping as he walked amidst sacrilege, asking God when it would stop.
Vandals struck again on New Year’s Eve, leaving the church in utter desecration. As if it were a personal assault, they drove onto Deacon Sulton’s grave, spinning their tires through the mounded earth until they seared his casket with tread marks.
Upon discovering the grave, Barbara stood in the churchyard along with the others. At first she was too shocked to cry, but as she took in the scene of depravity, the tears came and, once unleashed, overwhelmed her. As she wept and tried to console the other grieving church members, wind stirred the pine tree boughs, and from somewhere she heard a voice as clear as her own—“Now is the time to open your mouth.” She had to speak out. She wasn’t sure whom to approach, but she knew she had to tell someone—and soon. She could keep the silent tongue no longer.
The next day, she forced herself to go into the office but could only make it as far as the conference room before collapsing onto one of the metal folding chairs. The mounting grief she had been holding in check for so long was too unbearable now. She was vaguely aware of Ammie calling her name from the back entrance but couldn’t pull herself together enough to answer. All she could do was cry.
Ammie finally got her to open up and take her to see the destruction for herself. Now, as she drove home with Robin and infant son, Michael, her grief eased a little. Perhaps there wasn’t anything Ammie could do to help, but Barbara knew she would try everything possible. It gave her hope that at least St. John wasn’t alone anymore.
STANDING ON HOLY GROUND. Copyright © 2002 by Sandra E. Johnson.