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Alabama church fires spotlight long-running crisis

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A UMNS photo by Alice Smith

The Rev. Daniel Donaldson speaks with Joe Hamilton before the press conference on church burnings.

Feb. 21, 2006

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.

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 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.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Alice Smith

Rose Johnson-Mackey (left) and Joe Hamilton speak at the Feb. 17 press conference.

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.”

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