The first church to go up in flames was Little Hope Baptist Church, outside the East Texas town of Canton, on New Year’s Day 2010. The small, red-brick church overlooked a quiet stretch of farmland, accessible only by way of meandering back roads. At around nine o’clock that morning, a parishioner who lived nearby spotted fire venting from the roof of the fellowship hall. Thick, black smoke drifted over Little Hope, across the neighboring pastures, and into the cold winter air. The local fire department raced to the scene, but the hall, which had been built by church members more than half a century earlier, was quickly consumed, its walls left scorched and blackened by the blaze.
Two hours later, flames were seen rising from the roof of Faith Church of Athens, twenty miles away. The vaulted sanctuary and everything inside—pews, a grand piano, Bibles, and a stained-glass cross—were destroyed. As Pastor Leon Wallace walked through the ruins, he could see that someone had ransacked the place; his desk had been riffled through, and $2 had been taken from the Sunday school room. Although the blaze at Little Hope was thought by the Van Zandt County fire marshal to have been sparked by a faulty electrical box, the cause of the fire at Faith Church was determined to be arson. That Sunday, shaken churchgoers crowded into Faith Church’s youth room to pray, wondering who might have been responsible and why.
Then, ten days later, on the night of January 11, smoke was seen pouring ou...