As a pastor, I can’t imagine the phone call in the middle of the night, the call to tell me that my church has burned to the ground. I know the building isn’t the main thing, but it stands for something, doesn’t it? It’s something valuable to the people who’ve grown there, who’ve worshipped there, who’ve done good for others through the walls. And yet… “I’m reminded that church is not just a building but it’s a group of people who are joined together by faith,” Governor Rick Perry says at the press conference for one of the ten churches burned down in East Texas over a month in 2010. In this documentary, we see how the people of the churches, their communities, and those who come in contact with the tragedies respond to the arson- and what it means for church to be about the people of God.
Of course, it should be pointed out that there was a full-on investigation of the fires, and the whodunit is downright engrossing, even while we psychoanalyze people’s reactions to the fire. We see the FBI agent tell us that the only other times they pulled in another team were at the bombings in Oklahoma City and at the Pentagon. This is heavy stuff! Watching the different police investigators interviewed, seeing their frustration in previous footage and current videos, it’s powerful. But the interviews with one of the arsonists’ older sister? It’s almost overwhelming.
Around a quarter of the way into the movie, we hear the names of the two men convicted of the arsons, Daniel McAllister and Jason Bourque, 21 and 19 respectfully. We meet their caregivers, the people who provided them with food, lodging, and theological education, who have a diversity of responses to the crimes, the men, and the way the legal proceedings play out (Bourque’s mother is like a movie character). And we hear their potential motivations from other people, the things that led them to the arson, and finally from the men themselves. It’s unnerving in its evaluation of the men, various drugs, grief, family, religion, mental illness, and the crimes, and the processing of the crimes once the men were in custody.
It was a well-done documentary, which is what I’d expect from executive producer Bryan Storkel (Holy Rollers, Fight Church). It’s one that will leave you questioning your own thoughts about the church as a whole- one of the ways it poked me was the number of church members who told the filmmakers that they hoped God would be able to forgive the men… but that they wouldn’t be able to. So sad. But the flip side is the pastors who reach out to the men, who try to realize forgiveness in a real way. Ultimately, it’s this movement, from the church to the arsonists, that proves to be powerful, only slightly less moving than the parents of murdered children reaching out to the murderers.
This is an intense film, whether you’re a Christian or not, because it challenges us to consider what love and forgiveness look like, what causes us to lose our way from what we know is right, and ultimately, how we can change when our lives have sunk that low. Watch and consider your life: do you forgive? Can you?