Countercultural Love: Congregation Offers Songs, Prayers of Comfort Post-Tragedy
By Adrian Powell
The small Indiana city of Connersville has some interesting points of interest. It is the county seat and the only incorporated town in Fayette County. Dan Toler of the Allman Brothers Band in the 80s and 90s hailed from the town, and it has been considered a typical Midwestern town. But there are also some dark clouds that linger over the area from the past. An impromptu worship gathering late last year of one local Church of God congregation ushered in some welcome rays of light.
In the 1920s and 30s, Indiana was home to some of the largest Ku Klux Klan meetings outside the South and continues to have some thirty active hate groups today, according to the Southern Poverty and Law Center which tracks such organizations. Connersville, in particular, is known to be home to the United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
This brings us to Connersville City Councilman Tommy Williams. He is the only African American member of the city council. The city also only has a 2.7-percent Black population. Though Mr. Williams is a US Army Veteran, as well as a retired postal worker, while he and his wife and children were visiting Europe on October 29, someone set their house on fire.
The family is interracial, and the FBI is investigating this as a hate crime. While no one was hurt in the fire, the family pets were lost. Additionally, someone spray-painted the “N” word on the back porch of the home.
Enter Park Place Church of God of Connersville. Their worship drummer and board chair Philip Branum explained that he went to high school with the councilman’s wife, Emma, and had known Tommy, too. And while the church has been without a pastor for a while, Philip has been a part of the congregation his entire life, with his grandparents being one of the founding families. It was not that the community was shocked by the occurrence; there had been issues in the past that had impacted the image of the town negatively. “The difference now is that in the past you knew who you were dealing with. Today, with social media and the ability to hide your true identity behind a social media image, it is much easier to disguise yourself,” said Phil.
Williams was unable to eat or drink anything after hearing of the tragedy, recalling, “The first thing that went through my mind was, ‘Did I upset anyone?’ and ‘Why would they do this?’”
As the community came together to come to the family’s aid, Park Place Church of God decided that, in response to the morning’s sermon by interim pastor Shelly Short, that they would put their faith into action. The sermon that morning was titled “Faith, Vision, and Prayer.” Cathy Burgdoefer, one of the parishioners, felt God leading them to suggest they gather outside the fire-damaged home to sing and pray.
This witness of the strength of the people of God was powerful. As they sang Elevation Worship’s “See a Victory” and “Build My Life,” a neighbor of the Williamses said she was moved and pleased that a local church would take the time to come and do something positive, in contrast to those who were only there to “…gawk at the damage to the house and slow up traffic.”
The local Church of God has been a part of the fabric of the city of Connersville since 1938, and because of the resolve of the people of the city to overcome hate with love, a GoFundMe account for the Williamses has reached over $42,000.
Adrian Powell is an associate editor with Church of God Ministries and serves as senior pastor of Faith Community Church of God in Grove City, Ohio. He has been published in numerous periodicals, newspapers, and blogs, and has authored two books—The Jubilee Harvest and Resident Aliens: A Living Faith in a Hostile World, available at Amazon.com.