The sky was filled with fierce streaks of red and black – billowing smoke and flames – striking fear into the hearts of those traveling in their cars. Each one wondering what was on fire.
It was 1954, a very cold January, in rural central Georgia. The small community of Murphy seemed to be location of the thickening smoke, and a choking haze. Jesse Plover was down the road at a
neighbor’s when he walked outside to leave and he noticed the smell and the smoke.
He stopped, and looked around, and instantly, Jesse knew – that fire was coming from the church. He got in his Ford truck, and made a quick u-turn in the front yard, and headed the mile toward the church> His heart was pounding fast, and as he got closer, Jesse felt the warmth of the blaze even with his windows up.
Cars and trucks had already gathered around the church lot, people were crowding safely away, and men were dressed in their volunteer firefighter gear, getting water from hoses. In a distance he saw his grandfather, Malachi, the fire chief, calling out orders, as the one engine truck pulled up close.
The fire had already engulfed the building in its fierce flames, and crackling noises of boards falling and splitting could be heard from blocks away.
Jesse stopped his truck, and got out, his breath was getting heavy and fast. Malachi heard the truck door slam, and he turned. His eyes got wide, and he whistled, “Will!”
A man about 10 feet from Malachi, dressed in firefighting gear of the day, who was blasting the carport of the church with gallons of water, turned. Malachi pointed, “There he is.”
Will handed the hose to another man, and ran toward his son, looking in the crowd across the street in the field for his wife. She saw Will running, and stuck her hand up. Will pointed, “Annabeth.”
She saw Jesse, and took off across the street, “Jesse.” She called.
Will reached Jesse first, and hugged his son, “Oh son, we thought you were in the church. Nadine and Bo, and Sally, they said your truck had been parked there up until they saw the flames.”
Jesse hugged his dad, “What happened? I have only been gone 20 minutes. It was fine.”
“Jesse William, where in the world? Are you OK, son?” Annabeth reached over and hugged her son, and kissed his cheek. “We thought you were in there.”
Jesse swallowed. “No mam. I had just left and went over to Russell and Myra’s to take them the bible study book, and thought I could convince them to come tonight. Daddy, what happened?”
“We won’t know, son. Did you leave the heater doors open? Did you light them?” Will asked.
About that time, Malachi ran over, “Son, are you OK?”
Jesse nodded, “Yes, Papa.” Malachi touched his grandson’s cheek. “Good. Will, we need you. Jesse,can you suit up? Annabeth, get over there with your sisters and your mother.”
“JESSE!” Lucille, Jesse’s wife of six months, had just arrived on the scene, and was standing by the door of her car, listening to the women who had rushed up to her.Malachi said, “Go see about your wife son. Will, come on.”
Jesse ran over to Lucille, and she hugged him hard. “They said you were in there.” He patted her back.
“No, I am fine. I am fine. I just had gone up the street for a few minutes. I am fine. You stay with Mom.I will be back in a minute. Watch for your dad.”
Lucille nodded, and walked over to where her mother-in-law stood with some other women.
Jesse ran over to the truck where the hose was attached. “Jesse, you watch that water and keep it coming,” Malachi told his grandson.
As hard they tried to fight the fire, it was useless. After a while, they concentrated their efforts on keeping the fire from spreading.
After it was out, and people started walking around the debris, Jesse and his dad walked over to where the heaters were. Will saw it first. “Jesse, how high did you have it?”
“I don’t know, Daddy. I was not going to be gone for just a few minutes, but it was real cold.” Jesse leaned down to where his father was inspecting. He stopped. He saw what his father saw. “Daddy?”
“Hush, son. This is between you and me.” Will said. “This was an accident. That is all people need to know. Everyone is OK.” Will looked at his son sternly.
Though Jesse was in his early 20s, he knew not to argue with his dad, but his heart began to ache at the idea of keeping this secret.
They both stood and walked toward the crowd. Malachi said, “The cause of the fire could have been a zillion things ... we are not going to concentrate on that. We are going to focus on what is next. We have a Bible study to be held, and Preacher Wingate is here. Our house is big enough, we might have to do some squeezing, if anyone wants to come, we will have coffee and tomorrow, we will figure this out.”
Braxton Wingate stood up, “Malachi, I want to do something. You all can’t let this get you down. This is tragic yes, but God’s church can be anywhere. And I want to give you something to start your
building fund for the next church. Together, you can do this.” He walked over to Malachi, and gave him a $10 bill out of his wallet.
Malachi smiled, and took it, “Ms. Marie, here you go. Mark this for the building fund. She is our church treasurer.” He handed the money over to a spinster looking woman with her hair in a bun, and glasses who was standing nearby.
“Malachi, look, we have got the basement at the union hall right over there. We can get it warmed up and you guys can meet there until the building is set,” A man hollered from the back of the crowd.
“And our church, we have plenty of extra chairs and some hymnals we can share.” The preacher of the church two miles south of there called.
Malachi looked at Will, “Well?”
Will shrugged, “Let’s do it.” Soon everyone was talking and chatting, ideas were being passed and plans made, and people started going to their cars.
The group headed a few blocks away to Malachi’s farmhouse – a big house with several spacious rooms. He had 12 kids, so he knew there would be room for the 10 to 20 folks who were coming to the
Lucille took her car over to her in-laws to ride with with her mother-in-law. Jesse told her he’d be a long directly.
He slipped quietly toward the church building. His eyes began to water as he gazed around. Behind him, Jesse heard footsteps. “Son.”
Malachi was behind his grandson. Will had told him what they found.
“Papa, I ...” Jesse shook his head.
Malachi put his hand on Jesse’s shoulder, “Come on. Let it go. You are fine. We are all fine. This will just be a chance for us to build something bigger and better – you saw those people. We already got a building fund set up. And you, your dad, your uncles, me and several of the men, we will get the church built back.”
Jesse sniffed. Malachi handed him the handkerchief from his pocket. “Dry your eyes, son. We are going to study about Jesus tonight no matter what. Come on.” Malachi led Jesse by his shoulder away from the site.
Fast forward, 25 years later. Malachi passed away about a decade after the church burned. He was in his 80s. Most of the older generation that was there that night had passed away too. Several folks had moved away, including Jesse and Lucille. The church got rebuilt, and it was bigger, better and stronger.
No one talked much about the fire. It was a passing thought or phrase uttered out loud when folks got together at family reunions or funerals or weddings in the community.
Jesse and Lucille came back to Murphy after moving to Texas for a number of years. They brought with them their two youngest children, Olivia, age 15, and Jenna, age nine. The girls started school, but spent a lot of time at their grandparents’ house, and hanging out in the community of Murphy. Jenna loved going to her grandparents, and followed Will around like a little lost puppy. He would let her help him with the blueberries, pruning, picking and even gardening some.
Then they would sit under the big Norfolk Pine – which Jenna had named Myron for whatever reason.
One day, right after Jenna’s 12 th birthday in April, she was down at her grandparents. Her mom was visiting with her grandmother. Olivia was reading a book in the hammock underneath Myron. Jenna had gone with her grandpa to the church to check out a bathroom toilet that was leaking.
They were talking quietly, when they heard a voice, “Hello? Hello? Anyone here?” Jenna peeked around the door to the sanctuary. A woman and a man, dressed in jeans and casual shirts, had walked in. Both looked to be kind of old to Jenna – maybe in their 60s.
“Big Daddy, it is some strange couple.” She walked back into the bathroom. Will wiped his hands, and handed Jenna the towel, and walked into the sanctuary. “Hi, may I help you folks?”
The woman looked at him. “Mr. Will? Do you remember me? I am Margaret Mize – my mother was Naomi Purser?”
“Right ... I remember you. You used to have red hair and pig tails. Hi, how are you?” Will stuck his hand out and shook the woman’s. Jenna stood behind her grandfather, peeking around his waist.
“This is my husband, Jeremy. And who is this? Is this Jesse’s girl? She looks just like him.” Margaret asked, peering at Jenna.
Will moved Jenna around to his side. “She is not shy, I promise. This is Jenna. Jenna, say hello.”
Jenna stuck her hand out, an shook the man’s hand, “Hello, sir.” The man laughed,
“Hello, mam.” Jenna reached for the woman’s hand, but the woman wrapped Jenna in a hug.
“I am a hugger. I just loved your momma and daddy, How are they?”
Will answered for Jenna, laughing at the grimace on her face. “They are well. What brings you here?”
The woman said, “I was telling my husband about how the church burned, and everyone thought Jesse was in the church and how he pulled up, and then how the church was rebuilt. We were on our way to put flowers on mom’s grave.”
Jenna’s ears popped up as she cut her eyes back from the woman to her grandpa. The church had burned. That was new.
“Yes. Well, we have a good church now.” She noticed her grandpa had gotten a little flustered. Yeah,there was a story to this church burning, and she was going to find out.
The couple made some idle chit chat, and Will showed them around, with Jenna falling close behind, so she wouldn’t miss a thing. When the couple left out the front door, Will turned to go back to the bathroom, and noticed Jenna was standing in the middle of the aisle, with her arms crossed.
“The church burned, Big Daddy? My dad was supposed to be in it. Spill it.” She said with as much determination and adult-like tone she could muster.
Will sighed. “Yes, the church burned. The original one did. Now come on.”
“Big Daddy.” Jenna was stubborn sometimes.
Will sighed. He sat down in a pew, and motioned for her to sit. “You know if I tell you this, you can’t tell anyone.”
“Is it bad? Is it a secret?” Jenna asked sitting on her knees in the pew in front of her grandfather,leaning one the back of the pew with her chin.“No, not really,” Will said. “Folks just don’t talk about it much.” And with that, he told his granddaughter every bit of the story that he could, up until the part about Jesse and he looking at the heaters.
“And that is the story.” Will said.
Jenna said, “My daddy burned the church down, didn’t he? He had the valves on the heaters turned up to high and left them too long.”
She got up and stretched her legs, and moved close to her grandpa.
Will looked at her, amazed at her ability to discern things. “Why would you say that?”
“Big Daddy, I have been with both you and Daddy on service calls ... I have heard you talk about the old heaters enough. I may be 12, but I am not dumb.” She said, as she stood next to him where he sat in
Will sighed. “It was not intentional, and it was not something we told anyone. Your dad felt guilty enough about it.”
“I am sure he did. It was not his fault though ... you just said they were old,” Jenna said.
Will nodded. “But you can’t go telling anyone this, OK? We want to keep that a secret. It has eaten at your dad for years. But I think he is finally come to grips with it.” He stood up, and scooted her out of
“OK, I won’t tell anyone. What a secret though to hold for that long!” Jenna said. “My poor daddy. He was just doing what was right when he went to invite those folks to church.”
Will agreed. “He was, he really was. And our church now is so much better, don’t you think?”
Jenna stopped, and walked up to the pulpit, and looked around, “Yeah, it is pretty cool. My church is bigger, but I like your church. You feel God here too.”
The front door of the sanctuary opened, and Jesse stepped in, dressed in his navy work pants and denim work shirt, and hat. “Anyone home?” He called.
Jenna grinned, “Daddy!” She ran down the stairs toward her dad, and he picked her up slightly, and she grabbed on to him and hugged him tightly. “I love you, Daddy. Thank you for always doing the right thing.”
Jesse hugged her back, and looked at his dad strangely, “Well, thank you, honey, I try.” His eyes questioned his dad.
Will just shook his head, and smiled, “She just loves you, son.”
Jesse walked, carrying Jenna, toward the back – for a 12 year old, she was short, and light, so it was easy.
Will walked behind them, and Jenna looked at her grandpa, who mouthed, “It is a secret. Pinky swear?”
Jenna nodded, and gave her grandpa a wink, and stuck out her pinky. Will smiled, and wrapped his pinky around hers.