by Sandra Peters
Editors note: This is the first in a series of articles that will run in Response from now through the end of the year on the churchs response to church burnings.
Despite sparse or no newspaper headlines, churches across the United States continue to burn.
For example, on the eve of 10,000 United Methodist Women members gathering for Assembly in Orlando, Fla., in May, a church just outside that city burned. First United Methodist Church in Tavares, Fla., caught fire during the night of May 9, and burned to the ground. Orlando media reported the fire briefly then the burning faded from the news.
That media coverage, however minimal, is more than most church burnings have received since June 1997 when a U.S. Department of Justice and Treasury report to President Bill Clinton announced there was no evidence of a widespread conspiracy in the burnings of churches that began coming to light early this decade and continue today.
Though churches keep burning, the media no longer treats the fires as news. Recent fires include Black churches, multiracial churches, and churches the media has labeled as "predominantly white," a label that ignores the fact that these churches often are openly welcoming people of color. Churches that openly welcome lesbians and gay men also are being burned.
With individual fires ignored or called isolated incidents or accidents by fire investigators, the U.S. public isnt hearing the stories of the burned churches. The lack of news coverage also means the ongoing struggles of churches that have burned receive no attention.
So the Womens Division has become an active part of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries team on "Ministries in the Midst of Hate and Violence," which is working to track fires, work with pastors and members of burned churches to rebuild buildings and programs, and to create public awareness that the hate that fueled the early fires continues to burn.
"Our teams mission is based upon an acknowledgment that the work is not finished," said Lois Dauway, team chair and assistant general secretary for Christian social responsibility for the Womens Division. "One of the most troubling aspects of this violence is that we know separatists, white supremacists and militia claim the name of the Lord, claim Scripture, and claim their holiness as a rationale to hate and destroy."
Concerns being addressed by the team include:
The Womens Divisions lead in addressing the burned churches is in keeping with the Charter on Racial Justice Policies and the divisions long history in working for racial justice. For information on the division, the board and the denominations commitment to standing with the burned churches, see the General Board of Global Ministries website: http://gbgm-umc.org .
The fire at First United Methodist Church in Tavares, Fla., cited and photographed in the AWhen Hate Burns Out of Control@ article in the July/August Response, was determined by the church to be of electrical origin, not arson. It was also determined that the fire at First Baptist Church in Conway, Ark., also cited in the photo caption accompanying that article, was not an arson. Response did not state that these fires were arsons; however use of these photos with the article could result in that inference. We regret any miscommunication.
Sandra Peters is a consultant to the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries working with the team on "Ministries in the Midst of Hate and Violence."