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Church burnings cause pain for thousands

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | January 5, 2001

"It takes two hours to burn a church and two years to rebuild it."

The Rev. Lloyd Saatjian, pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, CA, should know: his church has sent volunteer teams for several years to help rebuild churches that fell to arsonists.

Nearly 100 churches burned in the year 2000, according to the National Coalition for Burned Churches (NCBC) - and many haven't yet been reported. There were 260 church burnings reported in 1999, 100 of those in the state of Texas, which remains the state with the most church arson incidents. There were 249 church burnings in 1998, 299 in 1997, and 409 in 1996, which was widely publicized as a crisis year for church burnings.

The declining trend led the National Church Arson Task Force, established by President Clinton, to report that church burnings were down. But the numbers aren't down enough, argue NCBC leaders, when the pain of church burning is so great and is still affecting thousands of people.

"When you attack something as rooted as a church, you hit people in a really deep place. They ask themselves: I'm in such grief, how am I going to rebuild? Somebody has attacked their roots. It's a very personal grief, similar to when you lose your mom or your dad or your grandmom," said the Rev. Jim Leamon of the United Church of Christ in Verona, NJ. Volunteers from his church have traveled to burned churches for four consecutive years to help congregations rebuild.

Many people actively helping congregations face burned churches experience church burnings themselves. Salem Baptist Church, a small rural church in Humboldt, TN was burned by arsonists in 1995 then rebuilt in 1996. "Teams came from all over to help," said the Rev. Daniel Donaldson, adding that's why his church sends volunteers to help other burned churches.

"We understand the crisis and the frustration."

But the public seems unaware that churches still are still burned, he said, in racially motivated attacks, vandalism, satanic worship rituals, or general hate. "People are not aware of the magnitude that still exists. No one's talking about it."

The Rev. Lloyd Saatjian, pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, CA, agreed: "Nobody seems to care. When we saw the publicity five or six years ago, we started sending teams out." Working with a Jewish congregation, the church has been sending work teams every year since.

"We don't see any end in sight," said Saatjian. "And most of these are rural churches that have been there 80 or 90 years. You're destroying more than a building."

"A lot of them have no means of rebuilding," added Donaldson. Teams from his church have been to Texas and will go back out again in June to wherever they're most needed.

Doing the rebuilding of their own church, Donaldson said, helped his congregation get the proper tools.

Forrest Morris, Jr. volunteered with Donaldson's church after he saw how many volunteers helped that congregation. "We had so many volunteers from so many different parts of the country. I said 'I can do the same thing,' The first team that came to help us was from Texas and that's the first place I went."

Morris, who learned construction skills in high school, now serves as project manager for the church's teams.

But the outreach sometimes seems limited to those who have been through it themselves, said Donaldson. "I talked to a Lutheran pastor in Akron, Ohio, and a Lutheran church had burned less than an hour from him had burned. He didn't even know."

While awareness has faded, "the problem of church arson has not gone away," said the Rev. Morris Stimage-Norwood, a Presbyterian pastor who works in the New England office of the NCBC. "Given the climate of the country now we can expect about the same or possibly higher. Unfortunately there will be hundreds of thousands of people who will lose their church homes this year."

The public seemed weary of hearing about church burnings after 1996 brought so much news, commented Leamon. "The media only paid attention for a little while but it's still going on," he said.

Norwood said is working with other church leaders to develop rapid response teams that would be deployed immediately after a church arson to offer support to the affected congregation.

Meanwhile churches continue to send teams to support long-term rebuilding projects. "Every April we organize a work party with church members and community members," said Leamon.

Groups have been as small as six or as large as 19, he said. "One week a year isn't a lot."

This past April, a team from his church traveled to the burned-out Springhill Baptist Church in Memphis. "We saw a very discouraged, scared congregation but very capable and super talented people. They were going to pay a contractor to come in and do it. It brought them together as a congregation. When it's up it feels really good to see it."

Leomon said he sees on ongoing crisis. "I have always tried to put the church in pioneering efforts that address problems."

Most church arsons are in the South and Midwest. "The cases of arson in the Northeast are minimal," said Norwood. "But the volunteer response out of the northeast has been excellent," he said, with groups such as Volunteer Vermont and many local churches participating.

Norwood created a program called Project Rebuild in 1997 which received the 1998 National Council of Churches' Ecumenical Award. "There is a real need for volunteers particularly those familiar with disaster relief."

Volunteers' anecdotes often tell of the pain and rewards of seeing a church come back from its own ashes. "One pastor put it very well. He said he felt very discouraged looking at his burned church. But then he realized one or two people burned it down but thousands of people helped him restore it, said Saatjian. "The goodness outweighs the destruction."

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