One parishioner burns for their interim pastor. Another wants him burnt like their last pastor.
As ashes from a church fire settle, the narrator believes he need only minister with this congregation while they grieve losing their former pastor in an “accidental” fire. Fearing rumors of arson will keep him in this rural American community beyond the year 2000, he works closely with the local detective, a single woman, to learn the truth. But his past ignites one parishioner’s ire, fueling the pastor’s romantic relationship with the detective.
You will have fun sorting the sinners from the saints before the arsonist “fires” a second pastor.
Pastor Greeley adds a Protestant perspective to a genre began by Rabbi Small (Harry Kemelman) and expanded by Father Dowling (Ralph McInerny). Like his mentors, Pastor Greeley helps his parishioners recognize grace in their lives. But he has much to learn about forgiving connections between details that form a fuse touching the arsonist’s match.
|Forgiveness of sins:
An ungodly stench drifted up from the ruins of the fire, reaching my nose even before I opened my car door. I had anticipated my stomach knotting on seeing the charred and partially collapsed granite walls where the church had once stood, but I was not prepared for the bile rising in my throat from the smokey haze. Nearly three weeks had elapsed since Trinity Presbyterian Church burned to the ground. More than sufficient time I had thought for the fire to be fully extinguished and for the fumes to have cleared. Instead decaying debris added their acrid odors to three thin blue spirals rising from the jumbles of stone blocks.
I had arrived in Clarington hours before my interview, hoping to see the small town as a typical visitor might see it, before people ignored me for my title. I had navigated my car to Main Street and into the first open parking space, which happened to be directly in front of the ruins of the old church.
“Would you be the Reverend Ashley Greeley?” a large, gray haired man said squinting at me as I shut the car door behind me.
“Yes, but how did you know?” I blinked, immediately scanning my jacket for a name tag lingering from some previous meeting. As he stepped towards me I glanced at his face and saw the sun-toughened skin of a man who had not spent his career behind a desk.
“I’ve been looking at your file all afternoon, preparing to grill you over dinner tonight. So when I saw that your car’s from the same place as this,” — he paused to shake several sheets of paper in his hand — “I put two and two together. I suppose you wanted to see what’s left of our old church. Hardly a day goes by that someone don’t stop and stare at it.” He swept his free hand towards the ruins, rolling his head from side to side.
“I am very sorry about your tragic loss,” I said, frowning and nodding thoughtfully. A glance at the rear of my car revealed the hole in my camouflage, a bumper sticker proclaiming: “Follow me to Mountain View Church.”
“Used to be a grand church standing here,” the man was saying, spreading his arms out over the ruins. “Atop this hill, you could see it from nearly anywhere in the county. But now it’s mostly ashes.” He hung his head, inhaled deeply, and sighed.
I swallowed hard to avoid throwing up. How he could stand the stench was beyond my imagination.
Three stairs led from the street toward two fire-blackened columns, which now framed blue sky instead of wooden doors. Guided by old photographs, which the search committee had sent to me, my imagination cleaned and rebuilt the sooty, partially collapsed wall before me, restoring it to sparkling granite, and the columns to glistening white limestone. The blackened blobs on the limestone windowsills became the lead between the pieces of stained glass, decorating each of the windows.
Then, looking between the blackened limestone columns that no longer supported carefully lacquered oak doors, I peered into the bowels of the church. Once rows of lovingly polished wooden pews had flanked a long aisle; now ashes swirled in the wind below where the floor should have been. Once glistening granite had soared high above the street to a peaked roof and tower; now blackened walls staggered to remain erect. Once there had been a social hall and classrooms down a flight of stairs from the front foyer; now the back third of the building had been thoroughly demolished and scrapped flush with a parking lot down the hill and behind the ruins.
A demolition crew steadily lifted blackened stone blocks from the remaining walls and sorted the rubble into various piles, stacking the smoke-stained granite neatly while a small bulldozer plowed and heaped ashes and debris into a dump truck that waited patiently to haul the remains away for burial.
Seeking a better view, I risked soiling my gray slacks and blue blazer and leaned against the yellow tape surrounding the ruins. I longed to loosen my tie as the sun quickly warmed what had started as a cool June day. But as this excursion had now become part of my job interview, I decided maintaining my professional image was more important than momentary comfort and merely unbuttoned my blazer.
The man standing alongside me folded and stuffed the sheaf of papers into a rear pocket of his dungarees. His sensible tan short-sleeve knit shirt was embroidered in green letters with “Norman’s Hardware Store” and the name “Bill.”
“They’re working in what used to be the basement,” Bill said, outlining with his finger where the walls of the old church had once stood. “After the fire, everything ended up in the basement. It was an awful hot fire. It even destroyed the cement between the granite blocks, causing our bell tower to collapse.” His hands rose as if holding the tower, then dropped into the pit. “The fire really embarrassed the town. People are laughing at our police department because the station is almost next door.” I flinched backward as his finger shot past me, pointing beyond the hardware store, down the street, toward a dull brick building bearing the title: City of Clarington.
“The whole downtown would have gone up if Harry Rawls hadn’t sounded the alarm.” My eyes followed Bill’s arm as it swung out over the ruins toward a barn on a distant hillside surrounded by fields sprouting with new crops. “When he went out to milk his cows, flames were shooting out our bell tower like sparks from a roman candle. And worse, though the firehouse is just three blocks away,” — his fingers counted the blocks to the fire station pausing briefly first at the stop sign just beyond the town hall then twice at stop signs I could not see as his finger drove left — “we had to wait for an engine from Fulton.” His outstretched arm arced upward then south drawing my eyes beyond the next hill, “ ‘cause we didn’t have a man sober enough to even run a hose up the street. The town picnic had been the day before and the fire company was pouring beer ‘til long after I went home at midnight.” He patted his belly and smiled. “And once Fulton’s engine got here, they mostly sprayed water at my place and them buildings across the street.” He waggled his fingers at each of the buildings like water spraying from a loose hose. “Our old church was nearly burnt out before it got any water.” He shook his head and frowned. “It was a rough way for it to end, but our insurance will pay us most of what we would’ve sold it for.”
“What about Pastor Brogan?” I asked.
“He was last seen up in his study around midnight.” With his finger, Bill pointed to where the tower had once extended upward into the blue sky. “About four hours before Harry sounded the alarm was the last anyone had seen him. Haven’t found him in the ruins neither. Don’t much matter to me. Either he’s standing before his Maker or he ran away. Either way we need us a new preacher. Some of us decided we needed a new preacher before the fire. But that don’t matter much now do it?”
Bill smiled, jutting his jaw at me. His tight lipped grin drove a chill up my spine.
Immediately he turned away and jerked his head for me to follow him down what had once been an alley between the hardware store and the church.
The bile in my stomach churned as a fresh dose of the malodorous fumes filled my nose.
We stopped where the church wall had collapsed, giving us a good view inside the ruins.
“Does the buyer still want the property?” I asked, thinking the stench alone would cause a sane person to reconsider.
“Nope. He’s got some land now a few miles north of town where he’s going to build from scratch.” Bill pointed up the road far beyond the town hall. “But he’s buying our charred granite and bricks. Wants them for decoration I hear.” Bill shook his head. “I wish the insurance company would have just pushed the walls in and covered everything with dirt,” his arms flailed in the air simulating the work of an imaginary bulldozer, “rather than that –that pimp getting our blocks. Excuse me, pastor. There just ain’t no good words for the likes of Tim Draven!”
I stiffened reflexively on seeing his fist clench and face redden, as anger swelled in his voice. Although I figured Bill was over three decades of wear and tear beyond my thirty-three years, he looked fit enough to defend himself against many men half his age. Furthermore, Bill stood a few inches taller and a few inches broader than my slender frame. Although his belly lapped over his belt, I suspected he could lift his fair share and then some.
“Is this Draven a local person?” I asked, hoping he was not a member of the Trinity Church.
“Thank God, no! He runs a smutty club over in Springfield and one or two other joints around about. And now he’s going to build one north of town. At least it ain’t going to be here in our town and especially not in our old church. Someone ought to stop him from getting our granite blocks. I’d do it myself, but I’ve done enough already to drive him out of town.”
With Bill’s face still flushed with anger, I decided not to ask how he had contributed to driving Draven out of town.
Amid the men of the demolition crew, in their gray-and black-stained coveralls, a woman stood wearing crisply ironed dark blue overalls. Both sides of her white hard hat bore the word ”Police.“ The officer’s broad shoulders and firm chest suggested a man, but the shape of her hips and the tip of a blond pony tail escaping from under her hard hat told otherwise, hinting that an armored vest veiled her figure.
Bill and I watched her direct the equipment operators as they removed large pieces of debris before she ran a small rake through the freshly exposed ashes. Once, we saw her scoop up an item and drop it into a plastic bag.
Bill pointed at the police officer and said, “That’s Joan Campbell. She’s a member of our church. She only comes now and then. I know she’s busy an occasional Sunday or two each month being our detective, but don’t expect to see her except for Christmas and Easter. I suppose it’s her generation. My son George, our police chief, isn’t much better. Do you have any ideas how we can get ’em to come more often?”
“Some,” I said, hoping he would not press me for details.
The police officer turned toward us.
“Joan!” Bill called, gesturing for her to come closer.
Although she tipped her head up toward us, her hard hat hid her face, except for a narrow chin and a pleasant smile. I rubbed the third finger of my left hand with my thumb, a habit I had developed while I had briefly worn a ring there, and wondered when I might start dating again.
When she came near, Bill said, “Let me introduce you to Reverend Ashley Greeley. He’s going to be our pastor until we can find someone permanent.”
“Let’s not jump the gun,” I said, raising my hand gesturing for Bill to slow down. “Even if the rest of the search committee agrees, the elders on your board, and the elders and ministers at Presbytery still get to vote. And just because I came to an interview does not mean I will accept an offer, if your board chooses to make one.” Given Bill’s earlier remarks about Brogan, I said nothing about the search committee only being authorized by the Presbytery to find someone to provide support the congregation until Brogan is found.
“He’s just being modest, Joan. You should see this resume!” Bill said, pulling the sheaf of papers from his back pocket and waving it in the air. “I’m sure everyone else will agree to hire him. And who would not leap at being the first pastor in our new church? We’ll finally dedicate it the same Sunday he starts.”
I rolled my eyes heavenward and sighed. I looked at Detective Campbell and said: “Is there anything I should know? About the fire I mean.”
Bill interrupted, saying, “You won’t have to worry about a fire in our new church. We’ve got sprinklers in every room; and, after the fire, the building committee installed a state-of-the-art fire and security system to boot. You can’t so much as light a candle any place except in the sanctuary or the social hall. And I’d bet if you lit more than two in either of those rooms, the alarm would go off!”
The detective nodded. “It’s taken weeks to carefully move the granite blocks that covered the site after the walls collapsed. We’re working slowly so we won’t disturb any evidence. Plus, taking down the remaining walls so no one gets hurt, slows us even more. So we’re only just now getting to where I think the fire started, the corner where Brogan was last seen praying. I’ve been here at least a couple of hours every day since the fire looking for clues of arson or faulty wiring. And,” she paused to frown, “for human remains.” After a long silence, she said with a deep frown: “We found his keys this morning.” Then with a half frown she said: “But he frequently misplaced his keys.”
“Detective! Over here!” A workman yelled.
Bill and I remained behind the yellow police tape while Detective Campbell strode hastily across the floor toward what had once been the front of the church. The workers had a chunk of mangled rusty metal hanging by a chain from the bucket of their tractor.
Bill shook his head and said, “I warned Brogan about burning candles in our church more than once. He was a fire waiting to happen. Soon after he came here, he was waving his arms over the communion table when his robe caught fire from a candle.” Bill waved his arms, simulating what I recognized as breaking the bread and pouring the wine for communion. “Cost us a pretty penny to replace it.”
I nodded pensively.
“And once, during a wedding rehearsal, he knocked over a candle stand,” — I jumped to avoid his arms — “igniting a silk flower arrangement that had been in our church for nearly fifty years. My money’s on him starting the fire by knocking over one of those candles people had lit or by dropping his oil lamp. And with no one around to put out the fire, he went up with it.” He started to point upwards, then pointing among the ashes said, “Some of us think he’s down there.”
“Do you have any idea why Detective Campbell could not rule out Pastor Brogan escaping the fire?” I asked.
Bill sighed, then said, “It’s because no one wants to admit he died in a building everyone knew was a firetrap and because some want to believe he started the fire and because no one wants to think about the enemies he made. Well let’s just say a few people hoped Brogan shared their hatred of Draven getting our building. And then he ran away rather than face arson charges. They think we might even find a few of his things, like his keys, so people will think he’s dead. Then if everyone thinks he’s dead, his widow gets his insurance money, but if he’s in jail, she’ll stuck with his legal fees. Well that’s the reasoning behind saying he ran away. But I know Brogan. He didn’t care a whit about who we sold the building to as long as they had big bucks. And I doubt he understood the consequences of burning the building and running away. And a few of us thought he was in cahoots with Draven. And some of his enemies … Well, it’s like this. People in these parts aren’t known for their patience with hypocrites.”
I gave Bill a quizzical look and he said, “Let’s say he ‘accidentally’,” — he made quotation marks in the air with his fingers — “started the fire, assuming he wanted to keep our building from Draven. If he had lived to tell about it, he would have blabbed to anyone who would listen to him. We’ve lost a bunch of long standing members because he blabbed something he wasn’t supposed to. And him trying to stay awake all night, by himself, with them prayer candles and that oil lamp of his burning in that small room …” He pointed across the ruins and upward towards where the church tower had once stood but only sky remained. “Well, he was an accident waiting to happen.”
He frowned and looked at his shoes with his arms hanging loosely by his sides. After a long silence he said, “I’m just sorry for his wife and kid.”
Perhaps it was the stench of the fire that made me uncomfortable, and not Bill. None the less I allowed him as much time as he wanted to reflect silently about Dave Brogan’s death.
He lifted his head, looked me hard in the eye, and said, “I don’t want you leaving here thinking everyone wanted Brogan dead. He did some good. In the seven years he’s been here, church attendance has more than doubled. I don’t like a lot of the people he picked to lead committees and such — too many women who’ll do whatever he wanted — but we’re raising a ton of money and doing a lot of good for this town. A lot of traditional churches around here can barely pay the minimum. Them independent churches don’t even pay that much. But thanks to Brogan we can afford to give our pastor about what school teachers make.”
Several long minutes later, Detective Campbell plodded back to us as the workers left the site.
She said: “When they lifted the old bell out of the ashes, they found a shoe with pieces of bone protruding. The bell probably fell early in the fire, when the tower roof blew out. I’m guessing that when the bell fell it must have trapped and protected his foot.”
I frowned rocking my head from side to side then said, “At least we will have something to bury. As gruesome as this is, it will eventually bring closure. Would you like to pray with me?”
“Pray for us, Pastor,” Bill said. “And pray for his widow and for his daughter. But Brogan got what he deserved.”
Detective Campbell nodded her head more in agreement than reverence.
In that moment, I sensed I would be their pastor, despite the knot in my belly that told me I should run away.