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Phillip Tutor: Churches rebuilt in Pine Ridge and Paris

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Pine Ridge CME cleanup

The dynamite exploded around 1 in the morning in the little church out on County Line Road. Pine Ridge CME Church sat in a slight curve in the Friendship community south of Oxford. Dynamite, though, makes no friends. Windows blew. Walls cracked. The bomb, placed by human hands, gutted the interior and damaged the foundation and tried to extinguish a congregation’s spirit.

The building was a total loss, but the church lived.

Pine Ridge CME bombed 2

“We built it once; we’ll do it again,” V.S. Westbrooks, chairman of the church’s board of stewards, told The Star on that May Thursday in 1965. “We’re not depending on nobody else.”

Since Monday, when the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned, I’ve thought a few times of Pine Ridge. Its bloodless story is largely forgotten in Calhoun County, the tale of a tiny black church dynamited in the middle of the night during the same year as Selma’s Bloody Sunday and the signing of the transformational Voting Rights Act.

Pine Ridge and Notre Dame share nothing, save for destruction and Christian worship. Pine Ridge -- the building, not the church -- didn’t survive its bombing. Notre Dame’s famed Gothic cathedral, 850 years old, did. Somehow, but how? Revolutionaries didn’t destroy it; Nazis couldn’t raze it. Monday’s fire became a third glorious failure. Like Pine Ridge, like the churches in northeast Alabama destroyed by the 2018 tornadoes, like Goshen United Methodist taken in the 1994 Palm Sunday storm, Notre Dame will be rebuilt. It will live on.

That’s what church-goers do. They rebuild, buttressed by faith. They live on.

In France, billionaires are pledging millions to repair Our Lady of Paris.

There were no billionaires in Friendship. Not a one.

People gave what they could. Quarters, dollars, small checks.

Contractors donated labor.

Hardware stores furnished supplies.

Pine Ridge CME rebuilding

Roughly 12 hours after the dynamite exploded, $2,000 had been raised to rebuild the church. The executive board of the Committee of 500, a local group advocating for peace and respect for law after the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, donated $600. The Anniston Star gave $250. A host of businesses -- radio stations WDNG and WHMA, Adelaide Mills, Tape-Craft, Anniston Cordage, Anniston Manufacturing, Roanoke Manufacturing, Evans Manufacturing, Linen Thread, Classe Ribbon, Genesco Manufacturing -- pledged $100 each.

That was the first day.

“We hope that the stewards of the Pine Ridge Church can get repairs started on their church right away,” The Star editorialized, “for it is imperative that the Negro population of Calhoun County knows its white friends and neighbors despise this kind of violence and repudiate those who perpetrate it.”

Pledges came from the Golden Springs Civitan Club, First State Bank of Oxford and the Calhoun County Improvement Association. They came from university professors in Jacksonville and farmers in the valley. They came from Anniston lawyers and Oxford business owners. The Star printed donors’ names each afternoon.

“Response to the drive is showing the world that this area rejects the hot-eyed merchants of hate who would destroy a church of God,” a spokesman for the fund drive told The Star. “We hope to have enough to do the job this week.”

By Saturday, $3,420 had been raised. By Monday morning, $4,152, with nearly $600 pledged by Pine Ridge members. By Wednesday, $4,725.

It took nearly a year to build a new Pine Ridge CME.

On a springtime morning the following March, Pine Ridge’s small congregation gathered on County Line Road. The new church measured 70 feet by 60 feet and featured a sanctuary, a pastor’s office, a choir dressing room and two bathrooms. It cost $12,191.56 to build, with donations allowing church stewards to borrow just $4,500. Ten percent of that debt was collected in donations during the first service.

“There is no need to be angry with anyone,” W.W. Thomas, a church elder, said at the dedication. “Just why this church was bombed, no one knows, and we probably won’t know in the next 100 years. But we do know that God is God and he works in mysterious ways.”

At Notre Dame, that’s seen by what wasn’t destroyed in Monday’s fire.

At the new Pine Ridge on dedication morning, a reclaimed crucifix hung from the pulpit and a print of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” adorned the far wall, just as it had before the bomb blew. The dynamite had shattered the print’s frame and glass, but the image survived. Like the church, it lived on.

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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