Sunday, April 05, 2015

Little Hope was Arson: Faith and Forgiveness in East Texas

It was only the third time in history the ATF mobilized two national response teams simultaneously. The first was the Oklahoma City bombing and the second was on September 11th. In 2010, East Texas was terrified by a spree of church fires. These were not merely cases of arson. They were designed to be deliberately transgressive and disturbing. However, the faith of the targeted congregations would not be shaken. Partly a true crime investigation and partly an exploration of the possibilities of forgiveness, Theo Love’s Little Hope was Arson (trailer here) is an unusually moving documentary that appropriately airs Easter Monday on most PBS stations, as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

Initially, the New Year’s Day fire at the Little Hope Baptist Church in Canton, Texas was blamed on faulty wiring. However, after nine subsequent Baptist and Methodist churches were torched, authorities found an ominous taunt carved into the wall of a hardware store’s men’s room: “Little Hope was Arson.” Someone apparently wanted credit for all their handiwork.

With dozens of law enforcement agencies assigned to the case, it is considered one of the biggest investigations in Texas history. Eventually, suspicion fell on Ben McAllister and Jason Bourque. At one time, the former Sunday school classmates were quite devout, but tribulations in their personal lives had left them bitterly resentful of God and the church—or so we gather.

Despite scoring prison interviews with both convicted arsonists, Little Hope is unable to conclusively establish their motives. Yet, Love is more concerned with the pastors and parishioners who strive to apply the teachings of their faith to such a difficult situation and the devastated family members who struggle to reconcile the loved ones they thought they knew with the monsters they now appear to be. This is especially painful for McAllister’s sister Christy McAllister, a civilian communications specialist with the Texas Department of Public Safety, who faithfully aided the investigation of her brother.

Very few filmmakers have ever shown as much empathy for the people of East Texas as Love does in Little Hope. He finds no snarky humor in the situation when anguished worshippers express their fears the church fires were the work of Satan himself. Instead, it is a point of view he seems to understand, considering they are standing over the smoking ashes that were once their beloved family church. Love clearly establishes the central role these churches played in the social and spiritual lives of their members. The pain of their loss is quite genuine, but so is the effort to forgive and to console.

Love chronicles the investigation and resulting legal negotiations, step by lucid step, but the real meat of the film captures the communities’ soul searching and emotional resiliency. It is rather shockingly touching and inspiring, making it perfect viewing for Holy Week (especially since the religiously themed Death of a Tree turned out to be something of a bummer). The point that each church is more about its people than its steeple might sound obvious, but it hits home hard. Highly recommended, Little Hope was Arson premieres tomorrow (4/6) on PBS’s Independent Lens.