Tuesday January 12, around 10:30 in the morning, a fire was noticed at a small New England church along Route 4 in the town of Grafton, New Hampshire. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere, Grafton was a former producer of granite slabs in the mid 20th Century, but declined in necessity since. The town has a gas station, volunteer fire department and many unpaved roads but there isn’t much more to it than that. It seems to the residents of the town, that the little government they have is questionably the most that they feel they need. This put a target on their back for many movers of the Free State Project, a movement of individuals who want to protect New Hampshire’s live free or die attitude of smaller, less intrusive government. For some of these movers, the low amount of government is but a stepping stone to potentially an even lower government. For some residents who have lived in Grafton longer than the FSP has been incorporated, they see this movement as an end to their utilities, their gravy train, the way that they like it.
The butting of heads has led to liberty folks squaring off with the more statist residents. Some examples of the back and forth battles include the Liberty types putting forth changes to town bylaws forbidding certain services to be paid with public funds. The other side answers with ensuring that the town clerk be unavailable whenever a person of the opposing ideology attempts to follow the rules of the town by registering vehicles or registering to vote. Childish acts at best, unconstitutional bubba politics at worst. We have seen in the course of American history, that the fundamental right of individuals to move to an area and make changes to the overarching system is one deeply rooted. Our entire government itself was founded on the acts of sedition and secession, yet a mere 200 years later, the state itself is so large and imposing, so engrained in society that any sort of fundamental change is forced out, or squelched in favor of the status quo.
I knew a man who lost his life in that church fire that spoke out, who acted out his ideals to reverse the status quo. He led by example according to his principles. He was an advisor, adversary, stalwart and teacher. John Connell, my friend, was the man who was Pastor of the Peaceful Assembly Church and he passed away from smoke inhalation during the fire that cold morning in early January.
I met John back in 2008, he had moved to Salem, New Hampshire from Massachusetts. He was one of a group of people that were down at Hampton Beach to do Free State Project outreach. We were supposed to meet, hand out fliers, tell people about why we moved to help New Hampshire become an even more free place to live. This was the dawn of Facebook, but the idea of telling others you are “going” to an event was still as flexible as it is to this day, people say they’re going but end up not doing so. I remember joking with John about “libertarian time” meaning no matter when an event is about to start, you can expect libertarians to show up 15 minutes late because, “don’t tell me what to do.” John told me how he was retiring and how he had always planned on moving to New Hampshire, but when it was announced that the Free State Project selected New Hampshire, he felt it was almost a sign that he was making the right choice. I went home that day knowing that my own move was the right one, and I’d meet a community of people like John. I was wrong, there was no one quite like John.
John and I crossed paths often as I was very interested in moving to Grafton, where John had lived in this period. Grafton was a Mecca without good internet access. We had many a weekend playing ball, having fires, enjoying each other’s eats and talking for hours. John had put up his retirement money and bought the Grafton Center Church around this time. He always planned on having a peaceful place for anyone to come and pray, to come and heal.
Grafton’s Center Church had been offered up to the Town of Grafton free of charge. They declined it. John put in an offer. It was accepted. The rest is history. John installed himself as Pastor of his new church, the Peaceful Assembly Church. I remember going for work parties, cleanup and renovations. John brought the liberty community together in Grafton. The church was the most visible landmark in Grafton and it belonged to our people. John was an artist, and a bit eccentric. He wasn’t about to allow anyone to tell him how to run his church. John was great at taking advice, but not at taking orders.
John seemed to make some friends in town, but many remained skeptical of what these Free Staters were bringing. From an outsider hearing from my friends inside, life was tough when it came to interacting with the town bubbas. It was exasperated by one of “them” purchasing their beloved Grafton Center Church (that they didn’t want to take for free). John made the most of it, and invited all people to his church. He offered up the area for the Grafton Apple Festival, an annual event that drew townspeople and freestaters alike. I started to drift away from Grafton, many big draws to town had moved away and I had landed in Tilton, a 45 minute drive from the lakes to the middle of nowhere. I kept in touch with John, watched as he documented his artworks, his painting of the multicolor fence, the addition of purple trim to the building and front doors. John had a lot of stuff, and some of that stuff made it from the church to the grounds. This upset the townspeople who, again, were unwilling to take the property for free when it was offered, but who never spared an opinion on the view they found displeasing. A solid New England trait, feeling that you have a say over the visage of your neighbor’s lawn.
This, again, led the town to clash with John. John didn’t believe that any church was due to pay the government anything, and also refused to submit his church to the likes of the IRS as well. This was a collision course with the Town fathers, who had their sights set on regaining this church and stripping it of the work John put into it. John wasn’t about to pay taxes on the property, as is the right of a functioning house of worship. The Town was happy to show him the full force of government at their earliest opportunity.
Fast forward. John had installed a Board of Directors, a group of townspeople who were going to do the dirty work of overseeing the payment of funds to the town and to incorporate as a tax exempt church. The Board and John never seemed to see eye to eye, and I always got the feeling that John would have rather the town take the property than he be removed from it by the people he installed himself. John was a lot of things, but he was no quitter.
I saw a single post on Facebook while I was at work. Around noon some photos started coming through my newsfeed. I copied one of these photos and posted it to my timeline. There were a lot of questions already but mostly I just wanted to get eyes on John. Where was he? If this was some crazy response to being taxed out of his church, my first focus was to find John and if necessary, get him the hell outta town. But no word came. Around 4pm I called my wife and told her I needed to get out there, I needed answers. I arrived in the snow, and arrived to find a detour far away from the church. Driving up past a cross road, I saw the lights and smoke from the steeple. They weren’t letting us anywhere close. I spoke to a gentleman working for the fire department and who was directing traffic. There was a man in the building. It couldn’t have been anyone but John.
Rumors began. People started talking about John’s internet shares of burning monks and self immolation. I can’t say I was free of any of these thoughts. I just couldn’t imagine John quitting. I didn’t want to believe it, and for one of the first times I can remember I put it aside and said to myself “wait for more information.” I arrived at John’s family remembrance event and saw so many people who were John’s actual family. They were in mourning, but the event that they put on brought together so many people that would never usually be in the same room together. John was still doing god’s work.
Grafton officials wanted a meeting with the Board of Trustees of the Peaceful Assembly Church. The room was arms folded, curiosity of what was going to happen to “their” town building. “Their” history. The “Purple paint.” “John was a nice enough guy, but we have to do something with that building and land.” One of the board members that is supposedly going to carry on John’s work expressed that, “(John) took a building of god and dressed her like a whore.”
The room was asked by the Board of Directors who was offended by the purple paint. Sadly, most of the people in the room had so little in their lives to worry about, that they would consider raising their hands to show disrespect for what John did with his church. It was offensive to them, that a man bought with his own money and dropped much more money into. They were offended that the fresh coat of protective paint was not a color they preferred. They were upset that John’s church didn’t run like the good christian churches that they belonged to elsewhere. They forgot what it wouldn’t matter to Jesus what color the house of worship was. They forgot that the building isn’t the Church, but the Church is the people. The people remain after that horrible day. The building may remain, but it will never be Peaceful Assembly Church again. It may share the name, it may get a new coat of white to cover what is deemed necessary, but in my opinion the Board will not carry on what John started, they barely knew him.
I gained an opportunity to tour the burned out Church. I had been silently waiting for an opportunity to gain closure for myself, for my thoughts of John and for my love of what he did with the building. I saw the people closest to him gain their closure, the family, his former roommates, his friends, his acquaintances. I was angry, I hadn’t been capable of ‘knowing’ what happened. The front entranceway gave me a very noticeable stench of burned pine and other woods. Very mellow, aged wood smell. I noticed a chaotic version of what I remember of how John kept the Sanctuary room. Very cluttered, but this time covered with ice and soot. The old piano was gone, but his room of books seems to have survived. I witnessed where his living quarters was, and where he was found. I have no doubts that John was attempting to flee the fire before he was taken by the smoke. To continue to hear the people espouse their theories at this point is making me crazy. I’m writing this in part to show people what the inside looked like.
No, I am never going to post the photo of the exact spot where John’s body was found, but I have one that shows how close to the door he had gotten. This was not an act of a suicidal man. This was not retribution. This was not an attempt, as some townsperson from Grafton espoused, to ruin their former Girl Scout clubhouse, their Church, where people were married, where funerals were held. The wall of the sanctuary room has large holes as are seen from the photos of the outside. A large tarp stops much of the further inclement weather from entering. After arriving on the second floor, I was in awe of how well intact the beams and structure are. Blackened, but not damaged as the outer walls were. The main level of the church, pews, bibles, everything covered in dust, ice, dusty ice, insulation and pieces of the roof. There is a large gaping hole to the right looking from the altar. The room was freezing cold, and smelled like wet cat.
I walked up to the altar, and saw that there was still a podium intact. I came around it and noticed that the Church bible, still open awaiting a sermon.
Genesis Chapter 5 is the page it is open to. You, the reader, shall take that as you will. I take it as a message from John, to me. I’m happy to say that I’ve found my peace with this situation. I will miss you my friend.