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10 years since black Chester church burned in unsolved arson

There is a place of great joy in rural southern Chester County. It is a place of more than a century of uplifted spirits, unbending spirits - spirits that cannot be broken by the awful act of arson.

Antioch Baptist Church was bent, it was bowed, but this black church was never broken - even when someone 10 years ago this weekend decided to burn the church down.

That week a decade ago, a pastor of about 5 feet 3 inches in height named the Rev. Paul Long - a machinist by trade who, despite his most earnest scrubbing, could not remove a lifetime of labor from his callused and stained hands - rose up to the size of a giant and told his flock:

"Do not hate. We shall rebuild."

And that is exactly what happened.

And 10 years later, the church remains - without hate.

"I said then, and I say today, that when all seems to be at its most gloomy, that the light of Christ is never extinguished," Long said last week. "This fire hurt. We never denied it. But the fire could not take the church. It took the walls, the floorboards, the pews and windows.

"But it did not take what a church is - the people."

The fire was ruled an arson immediately. A police dog pointed investigators to the sanctuary, where the fire likely started with some accelerant.

Because the fire was at a black church, and there had been so many fires and vandalism across the South at black churches, state and federal authorities that were part of the federal church arson task force immediately joined the Chester County Sheriff's Office's investigation.

Politicians and others were so worried about the crime, and potential copycat crimes, that the State Law Enforcement Division head at the time flew to the scene in a helicopter. Then Gov. Jim Hodges called to offer support and demand justice.

The South Carolina Arson Hotline and the state's insurance service offered a reward of $12,000 to catch the culprit.

Police interviewed dozens of people, yet no one was ever arrested. The Chester County sheriff at the time, Robby Benson, acknowledged that police had suspicions about who set the fire, but did not have enough evidence to charge anyone.

And further, authorities could never say, for sure, that the arson was racially motivated.

Long, the great pastor who grew up in Rock Hill during segregation times - "our whole lives were separate," he remembers - endured racial bias, inequality, and yes, even racial hate in his life.

Certainly, he is not convinced the crime was a racial hate crime, either.

"The crime surely was an arson," Long said, "but we do not know, and I don't want to believe, that the other crime was hate in a person's heart over the color of people's skin."

Even now, the case remains unsolved, but open. Ten years later, police still have no evidence that the arson was a crime of racial hate.

"We always considered it an arson, an intentionally set fire, but it has never been considered a crime against a black church over race," said current Chester County Sheriff Richard Smith. "We will not ever stop looking for who did this.

"I have been to that church many times. The people of that church, they are the best. They are great. They never let this stop them."

A recent arrest in York County gives hope that an arrest can be made. Just over a week ago, five years after an arson at a church in Fort Mill, a tip led police to an arrest.

Within just a couple of days after the Antioch Baptist fire heavy equipment knocked down the burned-out shell. By the following Sunday, Long had found a building in Chester in which to hold services.

That Sunday, Long preached about love and forgiveness in a concrete block room at the former Finley High School - the one-time segregated school for blacks in Chester that is now a community center. It was so packed there was not room to stand.

The room was filled with people of so many colors and religious affiliations - all sickened by the fire. Long - the pastor then and still - bounced on the balls of his feet and said the word "love" over and over.

He never used the word hate, or revenge, and never has.

"Reach out and love someone," Long preached a decade ago, in words that fell on people like salve. Long wore a robe that day that still had the acrid smell of smoke and fire on it.

Parishioners unanimously agreed to rebuild the church and forgive - but not forget - the crime.

People who read about the arson in The Herald, and the indefatigable will of the people of Antioch Baptist, gave donations big and small. Old ladies in nursing homes sent in donations as small as a dollar and as large as $1,000. A retired lady in Rock Hill sent an organ for the church.

People called and wrote and sent so much that the church had to index all the help. Help came from rich and poor, black and white, young and old. Churches took Sunday collections and sent money to Antioch.

A child gave his school lunch money for a week.

"The outpouring of love at that time is one of the most beautiful expressions of humanity ever seen - here or anywhere," Long said.

By August 2003, the church was rebuilt on the same site on Boyd Road, just off U.S. 321 almost to the Fairfield County line. A procession went from Chester to the rural church. Police escorted them and cars pulled off the road.

Strangers wept at the return of these heroic people who did not hate.

Church members talked last week about the fire. Long brought it up last Sunday and at Bible Study Wednesday night. Framed copies of all The Herald newspaper articles - the fire, the donations, the return, the five-year anniversary and more - were hung up for newcomers to see.

"We have never tried to make it out that this fire didn't happen, never tried to forget it," Long said. "We talk about it. We use it in lessons. God is the judge. Not us. Not men. God knows."

Yet most people outside the church do not bring up the 10-year past.

"It just is not mentioned or remembered," Long said. "That's fine. That fire is not Antioch. The Lord - and more than a hundred years of salvations and weddings and love - that is Antioch."

Long focused his teachings last week on Romans, Chapter 8, Verse 28: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."

The Rev. Paul Long does not just preach that. And the people of this small church do not just recite that.

They all live it.

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