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Church burnings leave deep scars

BY SUSAN KIM | Joiner, AR | January 28, 2000

Church burnings may no longer be routine headline news but they've left deep scars and they're causing fresh pain.

When the Rev. Waldo Campbell saw what was left of St. Marks Missionary Baptist Church -- an ash pile -- on Nov. 18, 1995, "it was like losing a member of my family," he remembers.

"We met at a church member's home the next day to decide what to do. We struggled together. We wrote to President Clinton. The White House told us to contact the National Council of Churches (NCCC)."

With support from the NCCC's rebuilding program, St. Marks started coordinating volunteers -- 337 of them from 19 states who traveled to his rural Arkansas community to help. The sanctuary was finished in March 1997. When the church burned, it had 30 members. Now it has 50. The 30-by-40 foot building was replaced with a 48-by-75 foot one that can seat 200 people.

"Someone said 'we'll destroy that church.' But the Lord said 'no you won't.' "

The arsonist was never found. "I don't think they did much of an investigation," explained Campbell.

Campbell and his congregation pray that it will never happen again. But churches are still burning "not far from us," he said. "One burned less than 30 miles from us in late 1999."

People don't always think of church fires as devastating, said Bishop Ted Myers, founder of South Richland Bibleway Church, a predominantly black congregation in rural Gadsden, SC.

"But many people think of their church as home no matter if it's a shack or a cathedral," he said. His church was burned in 1995 the day before its 16th anniversary. After an investigation that "took 10 or 15 minutes at the most," the congregation launched the long process of rebuilding.

"People also tend to think the churches that burned were buildings you could throw back up in a matter of weeks. But we had to build larger and we had to build carefully because the codes had changed."

Myers remembers that many organizations helped -- "the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, the United Methodist Church, the Quakers, the list goes on and on. So many people came in from other places and wanted to help rebuild -- young children in high school, old retired men, people on vacation."

Now the building is nearly complete. And Myers and his congregation can look back with "not so much anger as pain," he said. "Everyone can look back now and say this is God's direction, it's definitely what God ordered. And I do believe that humanity isn't given over to dumb, callous people."

When a congregation's faith and hope are reduced to ashes along with a sanctuary often it is the help of faith-based organizations and individual volunteers that gives people the spiritual boost they need to go on.

The First Baptist Church in Glassboro, NJ was destroyed by arson on May 30, 1997. The congregation, now meeting in the auditorium of a local business, is still rebuilding, said the Rev. Irvin Coleman.

"It has been a long process. And just when construction was ready to start -- it snows! But response from the community has been great. American Baptists played a great part in our success. They sent three specialists to train us to avoid the pitfalls. And the National Council of Churches just sent us $20,000."

The arsonist was never found. "The ATF has been out there many times, and the FBI, and the county police are still investigating," he said.

Much of the faith-based response to church burnings is coordinated through the National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment (NCBC), established in 1997 by pastors and members of burned churches as a grassroots, faith-based response to the 1996 church burning crisis.

The NCBC serves as a clearinghouse for documenting, tracking, and monitoring church burning. It also publishes a quick reference resource pamphlet for burned church families, "What To Do When Your Church Burns: A Quick Reference Guide to Healing, Rebuilding, and Recovery."

Plus, NCBC staff have a personal determination to see burned churches stay alive. "My home church has been destroyed by fire on three separate occasions over the last 60 years," said Rose Johnson-Mackey, program director.

Response to church burnings can include technical assistance and building services, coordination of volunteer participation, and the matching of partner organizations and denominations to congregations struggling to rebuild their sanctuaries.

News of church burnings peaked in national headlines in 1996, when hundreds of churches across the U.S. were torched by arsonists. Most burned churches were African American and in the southeastern U.S. The state that recorded the highest number of black church burnings was South Carolina.

Churches are still senselessly burned today. But, said Harold Confer, director of Quaker Workcamps International, which coordinators interfaith volunteer response to church burnings, "church burnings are no longer sexy to the media."

Confer, the only employee of the nonprofit, added, "I have seen many wonderful gifts come to support our rebuilding ministry, $5, $10, $15, they come in all sizes and from all sources. They are all blessed gifts but have been reduced to a trickle because people think churches have stopped burning."

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