'A Tour Of Burned Churches' Explores Race, Religion And Resilience In America

“You can burn the church down, but God still stands."
People pray near the burned ruins of the Mt. Zion AME Church July 1, 2015, in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
People pray near the burned ruins of the Mt. Zion AME Church July 1, 2015, in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
Sean Rayford/Getty Images

In the 10 days following the June massacre of nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, six other predominantly black churches across the South burned.

The causes of the fires differed. Electrical wiring is believed to have started one of the blazes. Lightning is thought to have struck the Mt. Zion AME Baptist Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina (which in 1995 was set on fire by two members of the Ku Klux Klan). Arson is to blame for the burning of at least two of the churches. And authorities have labeled another fire as "suspicious."

All six fires are under federal investigation, but regardless of what those investigations conclude, a burning black church in the U.S. will always carry associations of all-American terror.

In August, Scott Carrier, a Peabody Award-winning former NPR producer and "This American Life" alum, made a request of the listeners of his popular podcast "Home of the Brave." He'd noticed how quickly the burned churches in the South had fallen out of the news cycle, and he wanted to visit the cities where the fires had happened and interview the residents and congregants there about race and religion -- but he needed the funds to do so.

Over $5,000 in donations flooded in from "all over the English-speaking world," Carrier said, so he hopped in his car with his dog Augi -- half border collie, half Bernese mountain dog -- and drove east from his home in Salt Lake City.

What Carrier found in the South surprised him. Amid horrible tragedy and the ever-present specter of racial terror, he said, he witnessed awe-inspiring spirituality and resilience.

“You can burn the church down, but God still stands," one woman in Macon, Georgia, sitting on her front porch, told Carrier in a thick Southern drawl, as heard on a subsequent episode of "Home of the Brave."

“If you got God in you, you can’t burn down the spirit," another woman told him.

The Huffington Post spoke with Carrier in late September about his trip. Since our conversation, another five predominantly black churches in the St. Louis area have burned.

You can listen to the four-part "Home of the Brave" episode "A Tour of Burned Churches" here.

God's Power Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia, July 2015.
God's Power Church of Christ, Macon, Georgia, July 2015.
Scott Carrier

What inspired you to take this trip?

It was something that no one was really covering -- like people were covering it from a distance, but nobody was talking to people in the neighborhoods or in the congregations. The story about the fire in Warrenville [South Carolina] on NPR was three minutes, and less than half was spent talking to people there. I wanted to know what it’s like to live in a neighborhood where the church burns down, and be a member of the church where your building’s burned down. So I went there...

The older I get and the more I go cover things -- things that are also covered by the media, the mainstream media, they just often -- it’s really poor coverage, especially when I was doing stories on the Occupy movement. I read and watched the reports. The media is the spokesman for the 1 percent. I just didn’t realize that in the same way. More and more, I think the media tells the story we want to hear. They’re not really concerned with what’s in front of their face, talking to people. The story that’s produced is the story people want to hear, because that’s where the money is.

I thought maybe -- I don’t know -- but I thought media wasn’t doing better coverage of these church burnings because they didn’t want to go into these neighborhoods. They didn’t want to take their cameras out. But to me, burning a church, intentionally burning a black church, is terrorism. That’s an act of terrorism. I don’t know what [the] difference is from other things we call terrorism. So it’s serious, a serious thing ... And I didn’t think the media was doing a very good job, so I decided to go there and see for myself.

“"I’d forgotten about the other Christian tradition of nonviolence, of compassion and love in the face of violence."”

What surprised you the most on your trip? What weren’t you expecting?

Well, I didn’t expect that the members of the churches would basically -- that I’d get the same answer over and over, almost like a sermon. The same points, but also delivered with a very emotional... very soulful answer to my questions about nonviolence -- not responding with hate or fear, but fighting with love. And maybe I should have known that, because that’s what the people in the church there [in Charleston] did.

It’s this black prophetic tradition that Cornel West wrote about recently, which I didn’t know about, which I should have known about. As more and more people started giving me the same answer over and over -- "No, I’m not going to be afraid" -- I started realizing that they’d been living this. It’s different than the Christian tradition of the holy war, where Christian soldiers were like, "God wants us to go kill these people and defend our land and kill these other people, who are evil." That’s a Christian tradition. That’s the apocalyptic tradition with the end of the world: The holy war is coming and bad people are gonna be cursed and go to hell and the good people are going to be raptured up. That’s more of a Christian tradition I’m used to.

I’d forgotten about the other Christian tradition of nonviolence, of compassion and love in the face of violence. It was like going to school and being taught, being shown it -- not being told it, but actually being shown it, because these people are living it every day, and have been for generations.

“"It’s not hard to recognize the difference between bullshit and deep spirituality."”

I tell ya, talking to these guys, it’s a very emotional experience, because they’ve lost so much, and yet they’re able to respond in the best way. I wish that was more part of our culture, the culture of the United States. I think we’d be better off, [in a] better situation now. Especially if you think of how we reacted after 9/11. If we had not struck back militarily, with violence or force, the world would be in such a better situation today. But it never came up, really. People never really thought that at the time.

Are you religious yourself, Scott?

I’m not religious. In fact I really have a problem with it most of the time [laughs]. I’ve spent my life around the Mormons and I’m kinda known for criticizing the Mormon church, but the last story I did was fairly complimentary to them ... Yeah, I have a problem with religion. I think it’s mostly brainwashing. I would say I’m spiritual. The tradition of nonviolence is a spiritual pursuit if you can pull it off.

Where Mt. Zion AME Church once stood in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
Where Mt. Zion AME Church once stood in Greeleyville, South Carolina.
Scott Carrier

How do you reconcile not being a religious person, but also being blown away by what you saw, with the black prophetic tradition?

Well, religion is just a way to scare people, [to] frighten them into conforming and behaving according to the power structure. But spirituality is deeper. It’s the real thing, and I think I can recognize it when I see it. And these people were very spiritual. People who had their churches burned down that I talked to, most of 'em. It’s not hard to recognize the difference between bullshit and deep spirituality.

You talked to one woman, I think it was in Knoxville, where she’s kinda like, “It’s not a race thing” --

Except “down there”! Down the hill. Where there are gunshots.

And she goes on to say, “I’m glad the cops are here to protect us from them, running all over." And then you’re like, “From black people?” And she says, “I was gonna say Mexicans too!”

Yeah, it’s very real. You never hear that stuff on the radio or TV, but that type of -- in her mind, she was a very nice person who loves black people, she treated [black] kids like her own grandkids. And I don’t have any reason -- she was a nice woman -- but she was in a place with a history of these problems. Yeah, but it’s contradictory. She loves them, but she’s afraid of them, or some of them.

And what do you think that means, that there are such contradictions?

I think racism and prejudice are just very complex subjects. I think we’re born with a gene that makes us fearful of others. People who are different than ourselves or people who live down the hill or over the hill, or even go to the different high school. Everyone had a way to draw a line, and then hate those people. Seems to be part of our nature. Like I don’t know where you went to high school, but I imagine the high school closest to yours, there was a big rivalry. You knew all kinds of ways that they were screwed up or not good people. But if you stood all of 'em outside [from the two schools], you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference! You maybe could see it -- they hold their hair like this, wear their shirts like this -- but to someone from the outside, it’s just ridiculous, you know what I mean?

This goes way back to before apes, and a lot of times, chimps, anyway, spend a lot of time patrolling their territory, seeing if any outsiders were coming and then catch them and rip 'em limb to limb and eat 'em. You know, it’s deeply ingrained in our DNA, this fear of others. It often comes out as skin color, but there’s lots of different ways it surfaces, because it’s so deep and we’re such fearful animals. It surfaces in a lot of ways and it gets denied in a lot of ways.

The Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, burned down and its remains were cleared away.
The Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, South Carolina, burned down and its remains were cleared away.
Scott Carrier

In some places, it sounded like some people were a little scared to talk to you. Is that true?

Yeah, but I don’t think it had anything to do with the church fires. In Knoxville it didn’t. I was a white guy walking around asking questions. I’m 58. I have gray hair. I look like maybe a government person or a police investigator or something. So they don’t want to talk to me, or if they did want to talk, they didn’t want to do it on microphone.

So um, yeah, that’s normal. Not necessarily a racial thing, but when you go into a neighborhood where you don’t belong, people know it. You’re not from around here -- it’s that same thing. Probably for good reason. In Macon -- in the Unionville [neighborhood] -- this guy told me, "The only white people that come around here are policemen.” And that’s certainly what it looked like.

I wouldn’t necessarily want to talk to a reporter, either. They usually get the thing wrong. They usually misquote you and mess it up. So who would want to talk to a journalist? But people do anyway, surprisingly, and I’m really happy about that.

It kind of struck me, listening to your interviews, that what people were saying they may not have necessarily said in front of a camera, but they would say it into a microphone.

Yeah, I think that’s true a lot of times. At first, the microphone -- my mic is [a] foot long, kinda big, they don’t want to shove it in their faces. But it makes them think about what they want to say, and they organize their thoughts, and then they forget about it. Whereas a lens, you can never forget about it. It’s always there.

Is there anything else you wanted to say?

I sense that people don’t quite -- aren’t quite comfortable with this type of story, where I just go and talk to people, like in Nepal. I think people don’t quite know what to make of it. I think it’s something that podcasting is good for. I can do whatever I want because I don’t have an editor. I don’t have a censor. It’s very unusual. It’s a new thing ... If I want to get in my car and drive to the South or fly to Nepal, I can do it. I think I can get better stories. I think I can cover the situation in some ways better than conventional media, and I wish more people would do it.

Podcasting’s a new thing. It’s in its infancy stage and I’m really happy and excited about it, because I think it has a bright future and so many things are possible, you know, that I can’t do. I only have only my certain talents and abilities. There are so many possibilities about what can be done.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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