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Backstory: Seeking a miracle from the ashes

Arsonists destroy a church, but not the preacher's vision for this speck on an Alabama map.

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If you weren't looking for Panola, you'd never find it. It's like a thousand other small towns across the South - an accidental detour on the way to somewhere else. Seventeen miles from a Snickers bar or a Coca-Cola, Panola is beyond rural - it's practically forgotten.

Things might still be that way if it hadn't been for the church fires - 10 in eight days last month across five different Alabama counties. Three Birmingham college students were arrested in connection with nine of the fires last Wednesday, but healing will take a long time in Panola, where Galilee Baptist Church was one of the last to burn, completely destroyed on Feb. 7.

The official town center here is a ramshackle store, closed more years than anyone can remember. Tangled vines snake through broken windows and graffiti rips across crumbling walls where old men and young boys loiter.

It's hard to fathom outsiders finding the tiny, wood-framed Galilee tucked a mile within the Sumter County woods. There are no signs to direct visitors through forest and muddy farmland, down a rutted road worn deep by deer hunters. But somehow, in the blackness of an Alabama night, arsonists found the opening in a thicket of trees, crossed a bridge - if two wooden planks fit that description - and ended up at Galilee, shelter for Panolans for more than 70 years.

No one knew about the fire until the church was leveled - just concrete steps jutting from ash. Names on the church's blackened cemetery slabs hint at the depth of history in the loss: Pastor Bob Little's great-great-grandfather, who helped build the church with his bare hands; generations of church members; at least one person born into slavery.

Mr. Little likens the fire's destruction to "killing a family member." Church offers spiritual strength, but it's also the social network holding this withered town together - something to look forward to, a place to set cares aside and catch up on local gossip.

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