When cockroaches by the dozen started showing up at the front doors of the Fountain Temple AME Church on Sunday mornings, folks in the 35-member congregation weren’t sure what to think.
Their Pleasant Hill church dates to the middle 1800s. A decade ago it was condemned, its steeple caving in. But it was saved. They fixed the roof, put in new windows, purple carpet, purple-upholstered pews, a purple cross in the choir loft and brass chandeliers. The place was spotless, and they kept it that way.
Then last month, roaches -- some skittering, some spiritless -- began appearing around the welcome mat outside the sanctuary foyer. The bugs were also in the pink-bowed wreaths on the doors.
Parishioners figured maybe there was a roach nest somewhere. They’d sweep up the dead ones and turn foggers on the live ones. Then three or four days later, more roaches. It went on for weeks until the Rev. Mildred H. Denson’s husband had a hunch: Maybe someone was dumping the bugs there.
James Denson, 68, set up a surveillance camera on the tiny brick church’s front porch, which overlooks Madison Street in the blocks between Georgia Avenue and Riverside Drive.
The first Sunday this month, the bugs were back. After getting rid of them, James Denson, a retired U.S. Postal Service manager, went home. The next day he skimmed over the video. For what, he wasn’t sure.
He was rewinding the tape when he spotted something.
“Whoaaa!” he said. “I called my wife. ‘Come here, baby. Come here, you gotta see it.’ And she saw it and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’”
The footage, from 1:15 a.m. on Sept. 2, showed a man on the porch with no shirt on and white cups or containers in his hands. He was there maybe 25 seconds, emptying cups of clinging cucarachas. It almost looked like he was dousing the place with water.
The Densons waited a week to tell the congregation. They hoped to get a better picture of the culprit, but he never returned.
So from the pulpit last Sunday, the Rev. Denson informed the two dozen or so worshippers on hand that it looked like “we have a roach thrower.”
Then James Denson showed them the video, but no one recognized the guy.
“Most of them said they wouldn’t have believed it if they hadn’t seen it,” Mildred Denson, 64, said. “It’s just plain devil.”
She can’t imagine why anyone would stoop to such.
Maybe it’s “a demonic spirit,” she said, “a person who is demon-possessed. ... It’s horrifying.”
On a website touting “Witchcraft, Hoodoo, Voodoo,” there is a reference to a curse involving roaches: “If you want to put a spell on someone, put a penny and two cockroaches in a bottle on their doorstep and when they pick it up you will have a spell over them.”
But James Denson doesn’t think there’s any ritual to what the church’s mystery bug man has done.
“I think he’s trying to get the church infested with insects. I just think it’s a deranged person,” he said. “It makes your flesh crawl when you think about it.”
He reported the caper to police Tuesday. He told them someone who lives nearby might be responsible. It’s not like you’re going to travel too far with a handful of creepy crawlies.
But at first when he explained to the cops that someone had been tossing roaches at the church, the police officers didn’t understand what he meant.
“I said, ‘Roaches.’ They started giggling. ... I think that’s what they call the butts of marijuana cigarettes,” James Denson said. “Shows you how street smart I am. ... I said, ‘No, these are those things that’ve got legs on them.’”
Local news outlets have since swarmed to the story.
When someone mentioned to James Denson on Wednesday that it seemed like the only thing the church was crawling with now was reporters, not cockroaches, a TV newsman within earshot said, “A lot of people say they’re the same thing.”
As unsettling as it was for parishioners to learn that roaches had been slung at their house of worship, there are perhaps more disturbing things that remain unanswered: How exactly does someone go about collecting cockroaches by the cupful? And why?
James Denson thought about the "how?" question for a minute but couldn’t say for sure.
“I can see them throwing things like eggs,” he said, “but not no cockroaches.”
So no, not all of God’s creatures are welcome at Fountain Temple AME.
“Not those creatures,” James Denson said. “They’re not coming here to pray.”
To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.