“For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” – Matthew 6:14–15
“Forgiveness is a process,” Peggy Mahfood, the wife of Pastor David Mahfood, tearfully says near the end of “Little Hope Was Arson.” The documentary dives into the riveting true story about a community of East Texas congregations brought to a heart-stopping standstill in early 2010, when ten churches within a forty mile radius were burned to the ground. One of those torched was Mahfood’s Tyland Baptist Church, and Peggy’s reaction is one that reflects many of those affected, seeing her Christian duty to forgive tested when the sins she must absolve arrive on her doorstep both literally and spiritually. And it’s just one of the intriguing thematic textures director Theo Love finds in his film, which uses the investigation into a crime as a conduit to explore the boundaries of faith.
As someone quips in the documentary, if the south-eastern and south-central United States is the Bible Belt, than East Texas is the belt buckle. Indeed, within three counties, there are 1,400 churches, serving a population of 335,570. Religion isn’t just an identity here, it’s a way of life. The churches here have seen generations of the same families pass through its door. They are the hubs of many communities, and a place where neighbors and even strangers can find an open door and a helping hand. Many of the church leaders in the film pride themselves and their congregations on being able to receive anyone and everyone, but when its two from their own flock who go astray, the pain is palpable.
At first, young boys Jason Bourque and Daniel McAllister are the kind of bright-eyed newcomers to the church that any pastor would love to have. They met at First Baptist Church of Ben Wheeler, where the pair bonded and quickly took to their faith, but as they entered their late teens, they experienced profound, life-changing doubt: Daniel facing the death of his mother followed by a suicide attempt by his father, and Jason going through a painful breakup with his girlfriend, leading both to wonder how a God who is supposed to be all loving and care for his flock, could allow such terrible things to happen to His followers. How could this be God’s will? And with no answers to be found, they find an outlet for their pain in a manner which leads their anger at the church, and what they perceive to be its hypocrisies, to be known to the community.
Dividing its time between the machinations of the investigation into the church burnings and its eventual turn towards the two boys, and completing a portrait of the close-knit people affected by these acts of arson, the most refreshing thing about “Little Hope Was Arson” is its refusal to lay judgment. Instead, this is a film about the complex nature of failure; particularly how the church was ultimately unable to minister to the two people who needed it most, and how their families simply couldn’t provide the support these young men clearly needed during a period of tremendous confusion and emotional torment. It doesn’t justify the action of Jason and Daniel, but it’s a window into the thinking that led to ten churches being torched, something akin to an act of spiritual vengeance.
And thus its no surprise that the participants in the documentary reflect the tough choices that need to be made when faith and family are tested. This is particularly evident in the contrasting views of Christy McAllister (Daniel’s sister) and Kim Bourque (Jason’s mother). Christy is a communications operator, working directly with law enforcement officials day in and day out, and when asked to run a check on her brother, she’s immediately faced with a dilemma: assist the authorities who are investigating her brother or warn him? And for Christy, it’s a simple matter of right and wrong, and she doesn’t hesitate to help, even recording an incriminating phone call with Jason. But for Kim—who gave Jason to her parents to raise, as she battled drug addiction—there’s right, wrong and snitching; and as she makes plainly clear, there is nothing worth breaking the bond of family. But perhaps most illuminating (and entertaining) is Daniel’s father, David McAllister, the kind of character you could only find in Texas. And he relates his journey from the faithful, to despondent over the loss of the love of his life, to faithless and lost in drugs and back again, hoping that Jason and Daniel can eventually find their way back to the light.
Where “Little Hope Was Arson” could be sensationalist, it’s considered, where it could condemn, it aims for understanding. Love’s film is a crime story where the laws that have been broken are both legal and religious, and where justice will also require a salve for the soul. A fascinating story told with deep insight, “Little Hope Was Arson” finds that both fire and forgiveness burn in different ways. [B+]