There are people who I have failed as a pastor. And, without a doubt, I will fail more people before I’m done. This is a hard truth I have been trying to reconcile myself with, but I don’t like it.
I recently watched a new documentary called Little Hope Was Arson. The film begins as a true crime story revolving around a serial arson investigation in which the arsonists were targeting churches. The story takes place in East Texas (Tyler, Athens, Lindale, Canton, etc.) in 2010. The first church to burn was Little Hope Baptist Church (which is kind of a hilarious name for a church) in Canton, which also inspired the film’s title.
I have been to all of these towns, but I somehow missed this whole story when it was in the news four years ago. So as I am a Texan and love true crime stories and am a pastor, this film had me hooked from the start.
When the citizens of these towns learn that the church fires were done by serial arsonists, the initial reaction is exactly what you would expect: People wanted blood. You have quotes from citizens saying things like “God may forgive whoever did this, but that doesn’t mean I will.” Lots of people were interested in seeing the perpetrators dead. One of the FBI investigators has one of my favorite quotes in the film while discussing how citizens began trying to figure out who was behind the fires. He says, “This is Texas, so yes… they were armed.”
People wanted to protect their church buildings, and they were willing to kill in order to do this. Righteous indignation flowed through the communities.
Eventually, the perpetrators—Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister—were caught and put on trial. Much of Little Hope Was Arson explores the backstories of these two young men, raising the obvious question: Why did they want to burn churches?
Without getting into too much detail, we learn that each of the boys had experienced a certain amount of pain in their own lives and—justified or not—they blamed God and the Church for much of their struggles.
There is a lot to be gained from watching this film. First of all, we learn to see the perpetrators of these crimes as human, and we get to know their families, which also serves to humanize them. But also—as a pastor—Little Hope Was Arson served as a very real reminder to me that I have a huge responsibility to the families who call me their pastor. Some people attend our services, and they are at a very low point in their lives. I must constantly ask myself and the other leaders in our church: Are we providing a safe place for these people?
Am I interested in controlling/manipulating/exploiting people in order to build my own empire, or am I tuned into the needs of the people who entrust me with their Sunday mornings?
I think about this a lot. It’s why I responded so strongly Elizabeth Esther’s book Girl at the End of the World and why I get so upset when I hear about people who have been mistreated by pastors.
There is a scene toward the end of Little Hope Was Arson in which the pastor of one of the burned churches says to the two young men who set the fire: “We are sorry. Please forgive us.”
How powerful is that?
There are some pastors who do unbelievable damage to lots and lots of people, and when they are confronted about it, they defend themselves by saying, “I’m under attack by Satan,” or “I’m being persecuted by Atheists” (this has also been Kirk Cameron’s explanation for why his new movie is the lowest rated film on IMDB’s website). I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pastors do enormous amounts of damage to people and then completely fail to take responsibility for the wounds they have inflicted.
That’s why it’s so powerful when a pastor looks at the two young men who burned his church to the ground and says, “Please forgive us”—because this kind of humility is not in our nature.
Like I said at the beginning of this post, I have failed people, and I will certainly fail people again. I am human, and there are lots of moments every day when I feel like I have no idea what I am doing. I am trying to learn and improve and serve the people of my church as best I can, but sometimes I am just going to fail. I only hope I have the courage that this pastor in the film had when he said, “Please forgive us.”
Little Hope Was Arson is currently available On Demand and in theaters in select cities