'Little Hope' of faith and forgiveness in Bible belt

by Karen L. Willoughby, |

EAST TEXAS (Christian Examiner) – A film released Nov. 25 in select theatres and online details the true story of what was left after two young men torched ten churches in early 2010.

"Little Hope was Arson" is the work of two Christian "mutually aggressive, ambitious filmmakers," according to Documentary.com.

Trenton Waterson and Theo Love read an article about the fires in Texas Monthly magazine and "instantly connected with this story's themes and layers, and we knew that this was a film that would shake audiences of faith, or of no faith," Waterson said in the article.

In Little Hope, a small town about 55 miles east of Dallas, Texas, north of Tyler and halfway between Interstates 20 and 30, the Little Hope Baptist Church was set ablaze on New Year Day, 2010.

The education space, fellowship hall and kitchen were destroyed; the worship center had extensive smoke damage.

"The cause was initially blamed on a faulty electrical box but later ... ATF agents found the true ignition source: stacked hymnals and other combustible materials placed around the piano and then ignited by the arsonists," according to an article on SecurityManagement.com.

Over the following six weeks, nine other churches within a 40-mile radius were burned. Shoeprints at the scenes coupled with video evidence "from a nearby Exxon convenience store ... at the time the church fire was discovered at Dover Baptist," led to surveillance of the suspects.

They were arrested after one of them was videotaped at a country store where later workers found carved on a restroom wall, "Little Hope was arson," which became the title of the film. At the time the carving was made – with a burning, upside down cross – the public word still was that the first fire was an accident.

"There's nothing fancy about 'Little Hope was Arson' ... and that's the beauty of it," according to a Nov. 20 New York Times movie review. "The filmmaker, Theo Love, presents the people in the story as they are, without passing judgment and without apology, whether they are investigators or pastors or just ordinary folks caught up in the inexplicable. It's Americana unvarnished and because of that, as absorbing as it is respectful. ...

"The film relates the tale as a detective story, but one that is also a sociological study of a region that takes its Christianity seriously, and of individual families in a hardscrabble area," the review continues. "Some of its interviews are startling in their plain-spokenness ...."

The filmmakers interviewed pastors, church-goers, family members, investigators and the arsonists–who pled guilty and are in prison for life–as they developed what has become an award-winning, feature-length film that tells "a layered story of faith, family and forgiveness against the backdrop of the Bible Belt," according to IndieWire.com.

The company, theCollaborate, partnered with another filmmaking outfit, Good Night Smoke, to produce "Little Hope was Arson." The two producers entered the film in a competition last January at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Slamdance is an alternative independent movie festival started by filmmakers who were rejected by the Sundance Film Festival. Independent Lens picked up "Little Hope was Arson" for release on PBS next spring, and by The Orchard distributor, which has it in limited release now to rave reviews.

"This is the story of a culture that allows young people to get lost and the failure of religious institutions to reach them," according to a BeliefNet.com review. "The most powerful scene is ... where one of the clergymen ... uses his time on the stand not to tell the judge about what he and his congregation had suffered, but to speak from the heart, asking the young men who burned down his church for their forgiveness and assuring them that they had his."