Standing on Holy Ground - Sandra E. Johnson

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I think this book has been on my shelf for over 12 years. I'm pretty sure I remember buying it at a Christian bookstore's outlet mall location. I was probably a fairly new member of the Diversity team at the corporation I used to work for and something about the story caught my attention. Maybe I also felt like, once I knew it existed I couldn't not read it. (In today's over-exaggerated world I would probably be labeled a racist if I had picked it up and then put it back down again.)

So, back in January, when we set the calendar for the year and I knew I would be hosting in September, I proclaimed that this would be my selection, simply because it was on the top of the stack of books I have set aside for future book club reads. I had no idea in January how much news coverage we would see about "Black Lives Matter" over the last several months, especially June 2016.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 1

Religion: 4

Gruesome: 3

Suspense: 3

Morality: 5

Sex - a mention of a rape that occurs off-pages

Religion - while this is obviously a very religious book, I think it could have been more so if we had heard details of how the experiences specifically affected people's faith

Gruesome - there is an incidence of violence against a person that is gruesome but brief

Suspense - average level suspense, this is the sort of book that you know what's coming but there was a while when I felt like it was a soap opera and what on earth could they dream of next

Morality - this book is full of lots of people doing horribly wrong things and lots of other people doing tremendously right things

The book is much drier than historical fiction and not quite as dry as a history text book. Most of it reads like a very long newspaper article. Generally it keeps a good pace and flow but sometimes it gets a little choppy.

Not until page 58 do we learn that Ammie is not pronounced Amy but like miAMI, Florida. Ammie had a second husband, Charles, who was part of the narrative in the beginning and then he drops off the pages and on page 74 we learn they are separated. I don't recall even so much as a nod to when or why it happened and there was never a reunion nor a resolution - at least from the reader's viewpoint.

The major destruction and renovation occurs in the first third of the book. I wondered what else would fill the last two thirds. Then I started to feel like I was watching a soap opera - wondering what else could happen to these people. About two-thirds through the book I discovered that the book is divided into three "books" and I had gone through Book 1 wondering what more could happen. When I began Book 2 I hoped it wouldn't be more tragedy. Here the focus shifts away from St. John a bit and begins a general reporting of related activities. I spent the beginning of Book 2 turning back and forth trying to correlate the two books to see when things were happening and overlapping. It began in 1995 and I had to flip around to determine that the St. John rebuilding occurred in 1998. In Chapter 17 it was interesting to get a little glimpse of how the Klan operates and how stupid and gullible the members are.

Just like a pearl in an oyster I found a little pearl of inspiration on page 222, "If the Lord doesn't come, He'll send somebody." Another gem I got from this book was learning what the Southern Poverty Law Center is about. I've heard of them many times but never understood them. But maybe the best one of all was an answer to the question of why good people like Ammie die at a younger age compared to evil people like Horace King who live to an older age. On. p. 340 the author contemplated those questions and received a two-part answer, perhaps from God, that a) "If Horace King lives to be one hundred, he'll still never know the love she experienced. He'll still die a bitter and angry man." and b) "Perhaps Ammie had lived a hundred years; she had simply packed them all into sixty-seven."

Discussion Questions

Rosa Bell Eleazar lived next to the church and would hear things but didn't call the police because:

- what would happen when they weren't around

- what would happen when they couldn't respond quick enough

- what would they care

Was this helpful or hurtful? ( p. 13)

"The church meant everything to the few who clung to it." (p. 13)

Should their supporters have encouraged or re-conditioned?

There were few cars and from the outside the church seemed abandoned yet at least two ushers and several deacons were designated. Why not just all help instead of having official positions?

How often do we fail to see something as "God's way of helping us"? (p. 25)

Detective Yarborough wondered how the vandals didn't fear God. (p. 37) Discuss.

On page 51 there is a reference to someone being one of the highest ranking African Americans...

How will we achieve unity with constant reminders of differences?

Ammie felt bad for the role her ancestors played. (p. 65) Contrast this with the feelings of the characters in The Lost Hours. Are blacks still oppressed in today's world? Today there is talk of reparations for what the ancestors of African Americans endured. Do you support Tom Turnipseed's idea for reparations to descendants of slaves? Is this fair to both sides? Either side? Who will it help and how?

The church didn't want the vandals to go to prison. The Judge said he appreciated their feelings but was concerned about the message it would send. (p. 70) Who was right?

People close to Ammie and Barbara encouraged them to quit. (p. 77) How would you respond if you received that advice? What would you say if Ammie and Barbara were your relatives?

Many people believe in signs. Were there signs for or against the rebuilding?

Why do you think people continued to go there on Halloween?

Even with all the advanced publicity were they just not getting the message?

When you read about Willie's mom (Barbara's mother-in-law) getting beaten during a home invasion did you think it was a random crime or related to St. John? (p. 135-136)

Barbara resolved to pray for her son Johnathan. (p. 136) Were you surprised that she believed in this as a strategy even after all of the disappointments experienced at St. John, which she undoubtedly prayed for also?

How did Johnathan (Barbara and Willie's son) get so far off course?

Do you believe it was because of St. John as indicated on p. 149?

Discuss Barbara's reaction to save Johnathan by claiming Willie and his family was abusive. Include Ammie's insight at the bottom of p. 142 that "she would probably do the same if the tables were turned. It wasn't easy to be logical when your child's life was at stake. As a mother, she knew how strong the instinct was to back one's child, no matter what."

In Chapter 13 the church catches on fire. Ammie wondered "What had been the point? What was the point of anything anymore?" Have you ever felt that way? Share if you are comfortable.

Towards the end of Chapter 13 there was a conspiracy theory regarding not classifying fires as arson.

Do you believe it was a conspiracy? What about the idea on p. 186 that, "The conspiracy is racism itself."

Ammie was certain that Betsy would recover. (p. 204)

Contrast her belief with Barbara's faith in her son's innocence.

If you were Al from Texas and you had talked to Ammie and heard all the soap-opera level drama that was occurring, would you have traveled so far to help? Would you rationalize it as God testing St. John people or as the devil trying to interfere?

What did you find most inspiring about this story?

Discuss the coincidence that the arsonists and pastor had passed on the street. (p. 253)

Could you believe that the arsonists drove by the fire at Mt. Zion AME and laughed? (p. 259)

Why was "Moris Dees ... an ironic target"? (p. 274)

Discuss the quote at the top of p. 279, "If you don't have something in this life that you're willing to die for, then you really don't have anything to live for." What would you die for? What are you living for?

Discuss the "degree of poverty" rationale that Reverend Mouzon shared with President Clinton on p. 288.

Rev. Mac Charles Jones said in his testimony to the committee on p. 289, "Is it possible that these fires can galvanize this nation and initiate a movement that will mobilize us against racism, white supremacy, and hatred in all of its forms?" Surely at the time they answered "yes" with hopeful spirits. How would you answer the question today?

Discuss the scenario of Horace King's son and granddaughter. (p. 311)

Ammie died before 9-11. What do you think her response would have been?

Was there enough closure for you in this book?

Theme Ideas

Serve fried chicken and other southern types of food. Barbara always made fried chicken for the volunteers.

Watch the PBS Documentary "Not In Our Town" that was referenced on p. 194.