What is a church?

Is it the four walls where parishioners gather every week? The ceremonies that take the community’s pulse: weddings, baptisms, funerals? The ripples of a congregation’s presence in the community? The faces of worshippers? The figure a pastor cuts as he or she leads the congregation in prayer?

It’s not a question most churchgoers have to ask. They view their sacred institution as invulnerable: the pews, pianos, prayer books, sermons, stained glass, good works, hymns–all present in the way that tree roots are; sustaining, yet invisible.

But for members of Mt. Olive Holiness Church in Graham, those roots have been torn up and exposed. Last September, the wood-and-cinderblock building that was home to the small, black Pentecostal Holiness congregation for 74 years was burned beyond repair. Police say the fire that broke out in the early hours of a Saturday morning was deliberately set, though they have no new leads in the investigation. The incident landed the church on an official tally kept by the South Carolina-based National Coalition for Burned Churches. The coalition logged 117 church arsons, 17 bombings and 64 suspicious or undetermined fires nationwide last year. In North Carolina, there were five church arsons, including the one in Graham, and two suspicious fires.

Longtime residents describe Mt. Olive as a “seed church” for African-American communities along the eastern edge of Alamance County.

“At one time, it was the only church in this area,” says Naomi Wade, a former member who still lives across the street. “In the days when we were children, this was the most desirable part of Graham to live in. I remember when my father and the pastor used an old mule to lay the foundation for that building. It was the focal point of the community.”

Former members went on to become active in other Holiness churches in the area, including Mt. Moriah in Graham and Cedar Cliff in High Point. Though its spiritual influence has been broad, Mt. Olive’s resources have always been scant. The church has no insurance, no endowment and no wealthy board members to cover the estimated $110,000 loss of the building and its contents (including historical records and photographs kept by Mt. Olive’s founder, Bishop Boyce McKinney, who died some 10 years ago at the age of 102). After the fire, its diminished band of faithful scattered among other Holiness congregations, while Mt. Olive’s existing leadership was replaced. This further hurt membership and fundraising.

Some see the fire as a sign that all was not right with the spiritual management of the church. “After the bishop passed, it went through so many hands,” says Naomi Wade’s son, Dale, who lives right next to the blackened building and was baptized at Mt. Olive. “They started to forget their roots. You know, God had to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s a lesson for our lives. That’s how I’ve come to grips with what’s happened.”

Others see redemption in the community’s response to the flames. David Terry, a district overseer from Cedar Cliff, has been sent in to rebuild the congregation. A faithful deacon, John Walker, has stepped up to maintain what’s left of the church and its ties to the town. A 10-day tent revival held the first weeks of May drew nightly crowds to witness the spirit and do battle with the forces of evil–including the mysterious ones that consumed the Elm Street building.

Before the fire, the congregation had been talking about replacing the aging church, Walker says. But the support just wasn’t there. Now, the jolt of losing Mt. Olive seems to have rekindled something in the community–a desire to see a church again on that same spot.

The yearning shows itself in small ways: the crumpled bills pressed into the hands of church elders at fundraising events; the questions shouted from passing cars, “What happened? Will y’all rebuild?”; the neighborhood residents returning night after night for the open-air revival.

Stripped down to its essence, Mt. Olive’s mission is etched more sharply than ever.

“I didn’t go to church for a long time after the fire,” says Walker, leaning on the word like it’s a trusty walking stick. “But these revival weeks have been an inspiration.”

“God has done a work here,” Terry says. “It’s not about fundraising. It’s about soul-saving.”

What is a church?

My first view of the burned-out remains of Mt. Olive registers as a series of shocks: the fire’s huge, black handprint on the formerly white exterior, strips of flame-singed siding dangling down like birch bark; a blue “Neighborhood Watch” sign posted impotently just yards from the empty shell of the building.

Within minutes, Walker, Terry and a few other church leaders arrive to show me around. As we enter, they immediately clasp hands, form a tight circle and pray. For those brief moments, the stubborn smell of smoke evaporates and the sight of charred pews and glass-strewn carpet is eclipsed by beams of sunlight slicing through gaps in the ceiling. Church members Betty Curtis, Glenda Thacker and Terry’s wife, Minnie, stand straight and still as pillars.

“In the name of Je-sus,” the overseer says. “Thank you for this sister’s interest in our work.”

“Yes, Lord.”

“Yes, my Jesus.”

Mt. Olive is a black church, its worship style following the complex, layered routes by which Africans adopted–and adapted—Christianity in America (drums become sermons; spirits become saints; ancestors become songs).

It’s a Holiness church, born of a conservative spiritual movement launched in the early 1900s by black Baptist ministers who believed in physical signs of divine power such as speaking in tongues. The revivals they staged in an old building on Azusa Street in downtown Los Angeles drew thousands of Christians of all races who were hungry for “sanctification.” The movement’s diverse beginnings didn’t survive though, and by the 1920s, Pentecostal churches–like most denominations in America–were divided along racial lines. What survived among black Holiness churches–an offshoot of the larger Pentecostal movement–was faith in the power of individuals to experience the Holy Spirit, and an independent structure built around church families and lifelong pastors.

Betty Curtis joined Mt. Olive when she was still in her teens, after she moved from New York to North Carolina. Church founder McKinney and especially his wife, Pauline, were like family.

“They were very close-knitted people. Very simple and down to earth,” says Curtis, who’s Mt. Olive’s missionary president. “Their teaching was so basic. Just the Bible, nothing extra. Just the word of God.”

As we pick our way through the burned debris inside the church, memories of Mt. Olive’s heyday come racing back like someone’s turned the rewind switch on full speed: The youth meetings and Sunday school conventions; weddings and funerals; meals cooked in the downstairs kitchen where pink-and-white curtains still hang untouched.

“We were all baptized right here,” says Deaconess Thacker, looking down at a now empty spot on the main floor. “My sister got married here.”

“Remember when Sister Rose died here in the pew?” Walker asks. “She fell right over dead.”

In recent years, Mt. Olive’s membership dwindled as the church struggled to find leaders to replace McKinney and his wife. Talisha Gilchrist, the most recent pastor, was removed by the district’s General Assembly in October–a decision church leaders say was made after she refused to work under Terry when he was put in charge after the fire.

Gilchrist, who’s founded another ministry in Greensboro, agrees that’s what happened. “It hurt me at first but I had to let it go,” she says. “I had to let it go because rules are made to be obeyed, regardless of where you work at.”

Although she’s no longer with Mt. Olive, the fire has Gilchrist thinking about the church’s place in the community.

“When I looked at the building the first day after it happened, I thought about our bishop who had so many followers, yet in his home church there were only a few members,” she says. “It’s a strange thing. And I used to wonder about it. But yet, after the fire, I got telephone calls from people from all over who wanted to see the building. They couldn’t forget Mt. Olive.”

Which side are you leaning on?
Leaning on the Lord’s side.
Which side are you leaning on?
Leaning on the Lord’s side.
The Lord’s side.
The Lord’s side.

The morning before the fire, Walker says a group from another church had been by to use the kitchen at Mt. Olive. Everything was in order when they left late that afternoon.

The night of Sept. 29 was seasonably crisp and clear. The neighborhood’s notorious drug houses were up and running as usual. Other folks were going through their nightly rituals of TV watching and putting their kids and grandkids to bed. Just before 3 a.m., someone spotted flames shooting from the church entryway and called the fire department. A passer-by told police they’d seen a pickup truck and someone standing near the building before the fire broke out.

Naomi Wade was having trouble sleeping because of all the activity going on at the house next door. “I kept seeing lights flashing in my driveway,” she says. “When I finally looked out, I saw fire coming out of the gable on the church and fire trucks all in the yard. And I thought, ‘Oh my God. The church is burning.’”

A few hours later, a phone call woke Betty Curtis at home in Saxapahaw. “My friend asked me, ‘Did you see the news?’ And I said, ‘No. It’s 6 in the morning.’ And she said, ‘Mt. Olive has burned.’ And the first thing I thought about was how our bishop would feel, how our church family would feel.”

Graham Fire Captain Jerry Peterman was off duty that night. But since he lives only about a quarter mile from Mt. Olive, he drove over to help out when he heard sirens going off.

“The whole front of the church was engulfed in flames,” Peterman recalls. “The color of the smoke was unusual. It was orange and black, where usually with old wood you’ll get a clear smoke.” The fire was also stubborn. “We kept throwing water on it and it wasn’t going out,” Peterman says. Though a fire truck was there within five minutes of receiving a call, it took three hours to get the blaze under control.

The church had no smoke detectors in the area of the fire and no sprinkler system. “Luckily, there was no one inside at the time,” says Peterman, whose own church has offered worship space to Mt. Olive’s members. “Because a lot of times with churches, you have people sleeping in there at night.”

The fire department report describes the source of the flames at Mt. Olive as “unknown” and the cause as “under investigation.” But Graham Police Detective Pete Acosta says evidence collected and tested later shows it was definitely arson.

“An accelerant was used,” he says. “At this point, there is no indication of any racial or religious targeting. There were no threats made. But it is unusual–for anywhere. Normally, you don’t have churches burning.”

Since the mid-1990s when a rash of church arsons caught the eye of President Bill Clinton, the number of church burnings nationwide is down, and interest in the issue has fallen off. With the country’s leaders honing in hard on international terrorism, some church leaders worry that what they see as a continuing form of domestic terror will be pushed aside.

Rose Mackey, director of programs and research for the National Coalition for Burned Churches, notes that churches are still being destroyed by fire every month, especially in the South (especially in Texas), and especially if the congregations are black or interracial.

But Mackey does a funny sidestep when asked why this is happening. “Back in 1996 there was a lot of dialogue about who is burning churches and why. And we’ve had a lot of time to deal with victims of church arson and to hear back from the perpetrators of the crimes,” she says. “We have come to the conclusion that in the United States, we must take the position that it simply doesn’t matter who burned a church and why. We have to have zero tolerance for burning of churches in America.”

Back in Graham, folks are trying to take that stance, too–especially given the lack of evidence about what motivated those responsible for torching Mt. Olive. But darker fears and feelings are still there in people’s voices, and in the words they choose to describe what happened that night.

“Whoever came, came like a thief in the night,” says Glenda Thacker, anger striking righteous sparks in her light-brown eyes. “He didn’t fear God, that’s for sure.”

“That church wasn’t bothering anyone,” says Naomi Wade. “It was just sitting there, a landmark in the community. Why would someone have that much of a grudge to do something like that?”

Betty Curtis says her daughter misses coming to Mt. Olive. When they talk about the fire, “I tell her it was done by a very sick person who had a problem. She knows it’s a serious matter.”

Lord I got my ticket,
Can I ride?
Lord I got my ticket,
Can I ride?

What is a church?

On a warm, overcast Friday evening, the “praise team” is setting up inside a big white tent outside what’s left of Mt. Olive. A gray Ford van is parked up on the hillside behind the building and church elders are unloading microphones, drums, an organ and some video equipment onto a strip of carpet that’s been laid over the grass.

Five rows of wooden pews–ones that survived the fire and have been repainted a shiny, mud-brown–are slowly filling up with the faithful. An elderly woman rests her cane against the back of one of the pews. A tall man with hair in dreadlocks and a silvery chain around his neck sits alone in the last row.

Toward the front, Cynthia Blackmon, a minister at Community Holiness Church in High Point, is chatting with Glenda Thacker. Every night this week, the congregation has gathered in the open air to hear overseer David Terry and guest preachers stage an “old-time revival” full of singing, sermonizing and fundraising to rebuild Mt Olive. The first night, the music was so loud the cops drove by to ask them to turn it down, Blackmon reports, with a smile. “On Wednesday, we had six people come to Christ.”

Across the street, a woman sets up a blue-and-white folding chair outside her house, waiting for the music to start. Soon, Thacker and Betty Curtis take up microphones and begin singing backup for the praise team, led by Blackmon’s husband, Timothy.

“This little light of mine. I’m going to let it shine.”

As darkness falls, a generator is switched on and the music cranks up full blast. The ground shakes, the lights gleam. As the service begins, the tent seems ready to burst with energy.

This church isn’t about touching what’s holy through meditation, or accepting The Word in reverent silence. Here, the spirit is called up through the language of raw emotion and absorbed through the high-voltage circuits of the senses.

Inside the tent, God’s a “heart fixer” and a “junk collector,” ready to lead even the gravest sinner to salvation. The Devil’s just as present; he’s there in a bottle, a come-on–even a mirror.

Inside this church, a pitched battle’s underway. There’s sweat, drums, hand claps, shouts, visions, mosquitoes, sighs, growls and moans. Outside, there are only shadows and trees that seem to sway in time to the gospel beat.

As members of the praise team take turns at the mike, Terry suddenly leaves the shelter of the tent and crosses the street. The pastor kneels for a moment on the pavement, then heads resolutely toward the woman in the folding chair. By the time the next chorus has come around again, he’s taken her by the hand and is leading her up the hill. As soon as she enters the tent, she puts her hands up to her face and bursts into tears.

Cynthia Blackmon grabs the woman’s hand and the music suddenly stops. “Has it been that hard today, baby?” her voice is a shivery rasp. “Don’t you draw back on God because you think you messed up. That’s what he died for. You hear me? He’s soon to come. He’s on his way.”

Blackmon drops the woman’s hand and turns to face the congregation. Her thin frame is suddenly huge and powerful. Her dark eyes seem to be drawing in all available light as she urges them not to give up on salvation.

“This ain’t no easy work we’re doing,” Blackmon hollers. “God need a miracle like you. You know the Devil can’t stand against the word–he can’t do it. So come on now, it’s time to be loosed. I want you to come and let the overseer lay his hands on you.”

The woman from across the street is now standing in front of the pews, next to the man with dreadlocks, another woman and a teenage boy. Terry approaches each of them and places his palms on the crowns of their heads. “In the name of Je-sus. God, make him a bold soldier. Lord God, give her the strength.”

Through it all, the praise team keeps on singing: “He’s alright, my God’s alright. Alright alright.”

The tally for this third night of the revival: $130 to rebuild the church and three souls for Jesus.

In the months since the fire, the fate of Mt. Olive has fallen off the community’s radar screen. The TV reporters, curious onlookers and offers of help have gradually disappeared. Interest in rebuilding the church has also waxed and waned. One week it seems possible; the next, out of reach.

John Walker’s been talking about needing to tear down the shell of the building so it doesn’t violate city building codes. Naomi Wade says she’d be sad if the church structure vanished. But she’d prefer that to looking out her window every day and seeing what she sees.

“You open your blinds and there it is like an open sore,” she says. “I’m sure I’d shed some tears if it came down. That was my beginning and my roots. But then there’d be closure.”

Immediately after the fire, other local churches pledged financial support–including the white churches in town. But without a clear reconstruction plan in place, those offers remain on hold. The $1,800 raised from the tent revival is a tiny fraction of what’s needed to construct a new Mt. Olive on the corner of Elm Street. That goal seems very far away.

And yet, in the weeks since the revival, the focus has shifted. The church has come alive again–if not physically, then in spirit. Vans drive up the hillside on Sundays to take neighborhood residents to services at Cedar Cliff. Longtime members of Mt. Olive’s congregation are back in touch with each other. And pastors at some other black churches are talking about making the rebuilding project a “great cause.”

On the last night of the tent revival, guest preacher Harold Carr from New Mt. Zion church in Graham, cites the Biblical story of Nehemiah rebuilding the temple wall as a lesson for what’s happened at Mt. Olive.

“You got some folks against you who don’t want you to rebuild this church,” he says to the 30 or so people sitting in the humid night air. “But the church is in you. We’re having church right here.”

Pastor Terry, too, feels something momentous is taking place. He sees it in the faces of people drawn to the tent; in the renewed activity on the hillside next to the dilapidated building.

“We wouldn’t be out here if that church hadn’t burned,” he says, pointing over his shoulder at the dark, empty edifice. “We’re supposed to take the gospel out into the street. I believe that the miracle is in God’s house. It’s time to understand that my God’s real. My God is real.”

For members of Mt. Olive, the response to the revival has blotted out the sadness of the last eight months. Seeing people–even strangers–gathering on that corner, calling up a collective sense-memory of suffering and deliverance is the best answer they have to the threat posed by the fire.

“We’re not upset now,” Betty Curtis says. “We’re glad, we’re happy. Me and Mother Wall were just talking about how being here is just like church. I feel right at home.”

What is a church? For the faithful and for those in need, it’s home. That’s why when one’s destroyed, it’s a powerful hurt.

“It’s not like when one house burns,” says Glenda Thacker. “It’s like a lot of people’s houses.”

Mt. Olive members will be holding another tent revival in July to continue raising funds for a new building. Call Terry at (336) 884-0609 for details.