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Alabama Church Fires Spotlight Long-Running Crisis

by Alice M. Smith

ATLANTA (UMNS) - Arson burnings of churches had slipped from the nation's conscience until fires this month in Alabama brought them to the forefront again, but the fact of the matter is church burnings never stopped over the past 15 years.

That information was hammered home at a media briefing Feb. 17 in Atlanta, along with a plea to the public to help burned churches rebuild and to law enforcement to adopt new measures for responding to fires and helping prevent them. The press conference was sponsored by the Charleston, S.C.,-based National Coalition for Burned Churches, in partnership with the Center for Democratic Renewal.

In Alabama, 11 churches have been burned this month. All are Baptist, with an almost equal division of predominantly white and predominantly black congregations.

"The activities in Alabama is not new for Alabama," said Rose Johnson-Mackey, the coalition's program director. "The cluster burnings really did get (people's) attention, but it's been going on in Alabama for quite some time, and not only in Alabama but throughout the South."

From 1990 to 2000, some 1,507 churches burned and were labeled either arson, attempted arson, suspicious or undetermined, Johnson-Mackey said. From 2000 to 2006, the coalition documented a "minimum" number of 600 church burnings.

In Alabama, five geographically close churches burned Feb. 3: Rehobeth Baptist in Randolph; Ashby Baptist and Old Union Baptist in Brierfield; Pleasant Sabine Baptist in Centerville; and Antioch Baptist in Antioch. Another church, New Harmony Holiness Baptist in Fairview, burned the night before.

Statement from Women’s Division, General Board of Global Ministries of The United Methodist Church

When the clusters of churches were burned last week in Alabama, the national media paid attention. 

But as members of United Methodist Women – an organization with close to one million members – we know that the burned churches caught the media’s attention because they were a cluster of burnings.  And this – my friends – is symptomatic of a larger issue.

As women of faith, as people of faith, we need to ask some tough questions.

We need to move away from media coverage when a group of churches burn, and ask, “what about the hundreds of others that have been burnt to the ground in the last year? What about the 1700 that have been burnt to the ground in the last ten years?”

  • What communities are arsonists trying to terrorize?
  • Why is this happening in the same areas of the country again and again?
  • Where is the federal response and support that’s supposed to be given for each one of these churches?
  • Where are the resources to help the volunteer fire departments in local communities whose churches have been burnt because of hate?
  • When are officials going to recognize that the Alabama burnings weren’t the first burnings since the 1990s, but are symptomatic of what’s been happening year after year?

As United Methodist Women, we helped with funding to begin the important work of the Center for Democratic Renewal, then the National Coalition for Burned Churches.  United Methodist Women across the country have advocated with these groups for changes in laws to resource local communities dealing with church burnings, and we have collected data so NCFBC can have true figures on the incidences of church burnings across the country.

The numbers are horrifying.  It’s time that the federal government takes notice.  The Alabama church burnings are not isolated incidences.
As an organization, we will work with these groups and others to:

1.  Advocate for equitable dedication of federal resources to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies so that they can investigate church arsons of all burnt churches, including the ones that are not high profile stories.  

2. Urge the federal government to focus on churches that have been burned but do not get national media exposure. 

3.  Push local authorities to report the fires to federal agencies, and send the information to the National Coalition for Burned Churches for their registry and tracking (www.ncbc.org ). 

4. Build upon the work that United Methodist Women have been doing, including tracking hate crimes and church burnings in our local communities and we will  provide data to organizations like Center for Democratic Renewal and Coalition for Burned Churches.  Data like this is instrumental for advocacy, resources for local communities and support of the burned churches.

5. Create a forum for church members to come together and share stories and issues around church burnings which have happened. 

We trust our coalition partners and their data collection – their numbers are true and should shock us into action!  We believe all people have worth and the terror against communities and their houses of worship need to stop.  When one suffers, we all suffer.  We are committed to advocating until all people have sanctuaries in which they are free from fear to worship the God in which they believe.  I hope people of faith – no matter what faith – will join us in this effort.  Amen.

Less than a week later, on Feb. 7, another cluster of four churches burned: Morning Star Baptist in Boligee; First Dancy Baptist in Pickens County; Galilee Baptist in Panola; and Spring Valley Baptist in Gainesville. Still another church, Beaverton Free Will Baptist in Lamar County, burned Feb. 11. 

The Rev. James Posey, pastor of Morning Star Missionary Baptist, said at the press conference that his church is "dedicated to rebuilding," although almost nothing was salvaged from the fire. 

"One thing for sure," he said, "whoever (caused the fire) does not know God, to step on his sacred and holy ground and burn his building."

The pastor of another burned church, the Rev. Glenn Harris of Spring Valley Baptist, labeled the destruction of his church and others an act of "terrorism."

"We want to say to the nation ... (that) the perpetrators have failed in their effort," he said. "We still believe in what we believe in, the gospel of Jesus Christ."

The coalition was established in 1997, the year after former President Bill Clinton declared church burnings a national law enforcement priority. Since then, the organization has sought to keep an official record of church burnings and has supported rebuilding destroyed churches.

Johnson-Mackey said that both the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries and the board's Women's Division have supported the coalition's work, and that a financial gift from the board helped establish the center. In the past several years, United Methodist Women have been involved in data collection around hate crimes and church burnings.

Some of the biggest supporters from the faith-based community in rebuilding efforts have been United Methodists, Johnson-Mackey said, along with Presbyterians, American Baptists and the United Church of Christ.

"United Methodists have been involved in rebuilding since 1996," said Joe Hamilton, associate director of the Southeastern Jurisdiction office of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.

"Last year, we helped rebuild Sandridge Baptist Church in Opelika, Ala. There are four others listed on our Web site now, and volunteers are actively being recruited" for churches in Summerville, S.C., Gloster, Miss., Greenville, Ala., and Angier, N.C., Hamilton said.

Hamilton noted that several of the churches recently burned in Alabama are Southern Baptist, and that their denomination would likely take the lead in rebuilding efforts. However, some of the churches lack such denominational resources and will need assistance, he said.

The Rev. Daniel Donaldson, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Fruitland, Tenn., and volunteer coordinator for the coalition, knows firsthand about being a victim and receiving help, and then in turn helping others.

His church burned Dec. 30, 1995, but a year later, the congregation was able to begin worshipping in a new building constructed with the help of volunteers. Since then, his church has sent 12 to 13 teams to help other churches rebuild.

"God is looking at us as his children to respond," he said. "We can't allow Satan to even think he came close to winning a victory."

The Rev. T. G. Mackey Sr., president of the coalition and pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C. - which was burned in 1995 by Ku Klux Klansmen - also knows the anguish of arson-induced fire destroying a house of worship and the challenges of rebuilding. 

"Churches continue to burn, and somebody needs to be there to help them recover," he said. "The Bible says we are our brothers' keepers.  ... Thousands of churches must step up and be accountable during this time of crisis."

For more information, visit www.ncfbc.org or e-mail ncfbccp@aol.com.

*Smith is editor of the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia annual conferences.


 
See Also...
Topic: Civil rights Communities GBGM programs Race United Methodist Church Violence
Geographic Region: South Eastern U.S.United States
Source: United Methodist News Service
 
 

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Date posted: Feb 21, 2006