After arson, faith triumphs for MS church

BY SUSAN KIM | Raymond, MS | March 10, 2001

"When we got burned down, my faith wasn't that strong. But our pastor said we were going to build back. My pastor was positive, and so I got a positive mind."

—Robert Bell

This church's comeback from the ashes started with a prayer. On Sunday the 90-member

congregation of Mount Center Baptist Church will dedicate a new sanctuary -- and reconfirm a

strengthened faith -- after an arsonist torched their building last April.

For nearly a year, church members have planned, worked, and solicited financial contributions to reach their dream,

said Robert Bell, head of the church's trustees. "But it all started off with a prayer," he said. "It had to. We got burned

out without insurance."

This Sunday the congregation will join state officials, Hinds County leaders, two community choirs, and pastors and

members from neighboring churches. All will gather to bless Mount Center.

Bell, a modest man and a self-employed electrical contractor, has been a big

force behind the rebuilding. The church will open its new doors on the

same lot. Bell's friends and colleagues did a significant part of the

construction work. "A lot of people I know came to help out, and we also

got a lot of breaks on purchasing building materials," he said.

In the meantime, the congregation worshipped in a neighboring sanctuary.

Bell credits the National Coalition for Burned Churches (NCBC), an

interfaith nonprofit that provides resources for congregations whose

churches are burned, for helping keep his spirits up. "The coalition provided

financial help, people to contact, and spiritual support. Anytime I called,

they were there."

NCBC also helped organize people in the local community who came out

to volunteer.

Bell credits his own pastor for offering a solid example of faith as well. "When we got burned down, my faith wasn't

that strong. But our pastor said we were going to build back. My pastor was positive, and so I got a positive mind."

Severe weather that hit Mississippi in the past month just missed the town of Raymond, where the new building is

located. "We missed the storms. By the grace of God, we missed them by a hair," said Bell.

In the year 2000, NCBC documented more than 300 church arsons across the nation. Only about 34 percent of

arsonists are caught in church arson cases nationwide, according to the federal National Church Arson Task Force.

Each year, NCBC raises funds to help 25 churches that have been destroyed or damaged by arson that is proven or

suspected to be motivated by racial hatred or anti-religious bias.

NCBC provides grants to local churches, and also sends its staff to visit burned church sites. Coalition representatives

help local pastors and church members identify funding sources as well as recruit and coordinate volunteers.

NCBC also helps churches contact and work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, National

Council of Churches, Congress of National Black Churches, Habitat for Humanity, and other organizations.

The Faith in Victory Church serves the farm worker community at the tip of south Texas, five miles from the Mexican

border. Nearly three years ago, as church members left their Sunday service, they heard a loud explosion come from

the center of their sanctuary. The church was reduced to rubble.

For two years, the congregation met "under trees, outside, in little units," said the Rev. Lucy Martinez. "People were

calling us gypsies." Martinez has been a pastor at the church for nine years.

With support from NCBC, the Faith in Victory congregation rebuilt in the same location and has been worshipping in

its new space for nearly a year. "It's a blessing to get into the new building. We're literally living our name," said


Now the group is trying to raise money to purchase pews. She credits the congregation for a faith that keeps them

coming back. "They could have moved on to a church with carpet and pews," she said. "We're hanging in there. We're

keeping the faith."

NCBC was established in October 1977 as a faith-based response to the 1996 church-burning crisis. It is a multiracial,

multi-denominational coalition of clergy and laity whose place of worship have been burned or firebombed.

NCBC staff and members consider church burning an ongoing crisis, reporting that churches continue to burn at an

average rate of over 18 per month. NCBC leaders noted that most fires are occurring in the same geographical

location -- southern and mid-western states. They suggest that hatred of race, gender, or religion were factors in each


In Miami, FL, a new sanctuary for the Solid Rock Baptist Church will be completed this October after being burned in

1994, said the Rev. Rufus Troup. NCBC has worked alongside the congregation since the arson happened, he said.

"They helped us get volunteer workers to help rebuild."

Troup commented that the Miami community has changed since he grew up there. "It's divided along ethnic lines and

racial lines. It's torn apart," he said.

Greater Gospel Truth Baptist Church in Memphis, TN was building a new sanctuary when an arsonist burned the old

building as well as the just-started new one. "Our new building will be made of concrete block," said the Rev. W.C.

Stewart. Until that's complete, the congregation is worshipping at Stewart's home.

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