From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Presbyterian World Service Responds

Date 04 May 1996 16:06:13


96144          Presbyterian World Service Responds  
                     to Black Church Burnings 
                         by Julian Shipp 
LOUISVILLE, Ky.--Exemplifying the disturbing rise of hate crimes in 
America, more than 17 African American churches in Alabama and six other 
states have been struck by suspicious fires over the past 15 months.  And 
Presbyterian World Service (PWS) has rushed to provide financial aid. 
     To date, none of the torched churches have been Presbyterian and no 
injuries have been reported, but as the crisis ministry of the Presbyterian 
Church (U.S.A), PWS is charged to provide assistance for the immediate 
relief of people suffering from natural, civil and technological crises and 
     To that end, PWS sent $7,500 in One Great Hour of Sharing funds to the 
Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley to help black congregations in Alabama 
rebuild.  Stan E. Hankins, associate for disaster response U.S.A. in the 
Worldwide Ministries Division, said information from other parts of the 
country is now being gathered to determine whether additional financial aid 
is warranted. 
     According to the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 
a nonprofit human and civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala., 
four black churches were burned recently in Greene County in Boligee, Ala. 
They are Mount Zion Baptist Church and Jerusalem Baptist Church on Dec. 22 
and Little Zion Baptist Church and Mount Zoar Baptist Church on Jan. 11. 
     "We are outraged by these wanton acts of violence," said Felix 
Yarboro, moderator of the mission division of the Presbytery of Sheppards 
and Lapsley. "And we want to register our feelings with our resources, as 
well as our prayers for reconciliation." 
     The Rev. Eugenia A. Gamble, associate executive presbyter of Sheppards 
and Lapsley Presbytery, said that in addition to the grant, local 
Presbyterians have established a fund to receive donations for 
reconstruction of the churches. 
     "We've gotten calls from folks from all over the country wanting to 
help and we're real pleased with that kind of outpouring," Gamble said. 
"The folks in Greene County have been touched by the response, too. If 
nothing else, we've got to all stand together and say,  These actions will 
not be allowed.'"  
     Although churches in other presbyteries have also been destroyed, 
Hankins told the Presbyterian News Service that Sheppards and Lapsley 
Presbytery was selected because  it was the first one to be brought to his 
office's  attention. 
      "The $7,500 that we're now using is really just seed money we hope 
some of the other major denominations might get wind of and also supply 
some funds," Hankins said. 
     According to the Center for Democratic Renewal (CDR), a nonprofit, 
Atlanta-based civil and human rights organization, from January 1990 
through March 1996 nearly 50 African American and interracial churches in 
Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and other states were bombed, 
burned or defaced.  Whether there was racial motivation has yet to be 
determined in some of the cases.  
     Most of the churches are nonaffiliated Baptist chapels located in 
rural and impoverished communities. But among the most recent fires was the 
one Jan. 8 in Knoxville, Tenn., at the nondenominational Inner City Church, 
where former professional football star Reggie White is an associate 
     Without assistance, Hankins said, there's little possibility for most 
of  the congregations to rebuild their churches. But, Hankins said, there 
are other things Presbyterians can do to help: 
          Pray for the individuals and communities who have been affected 
by the rising wave of 
          hate crimes sweeping across the United States. 
          Organize a volunteer work team to assist in the rebuilding 
effort. Let PWS know of your 
          group's availability by calling (800) 872-3283. 
          Prayerfully consider the opportunity to give. Gifts from 
churches' Peacemaking 
          Offerings would be an appropriate response to this crisis. 
Individuals may give through 
          their local congregations and congregations may give through 
their normal mission 
          channels, designating the gifts for "Response to Church Burnings, 
#9-2000126." Gifts 
          may also be sent directly to Central Receiving Service, 100 
Witherspoon Street, 
          Louisville, KY 40202-1396. 
     The Rev. Otis Turner, associate for racial justice in the National 
Ministries Division, said the fires have summoned memories from a time when 
black churches were attacked to avenge efforts of African Americans to 
register to vote or to desegregate public facilities.  
     The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) 
has asked U.S.  Attorney General  Janet Reno to launch a Justice Department 
investigation into the fires, many of which are deemed "suspicious." The 
Justice Department confirmed that it is investigating whether the recent 
fires in Alabama and Tennessee are hate based, but a department 
spokesperson declined to confirm the scope of the investigation. 
     According to Ecumenical News International, the National Council of 
Churches (NCC) is planning an "aggressive effort" to find out who is behind 
the church burnings. 
     The NCC is coordinating its work with the CDR, which is conducting an 
independent investigation of the firebombings, and the New York-based 
Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which is exploring legal action to 
combat the rising number of attacks. 
     Civil rights leaders are also clear on the need to address the series 
of fires as they discuss plans to unfold a national action strategy. 
     "The resurgence of firebombings and burnings of our churches is a 
painful reminder of our past," said the Rev. C.T. Vivian, chair of the CDR 
board of directors and former aide to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. "It was 
only 30 years ago that the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., 
was burned and four children died. During these talks, we will take a clear 
and careful look at who's bombing and vandalizing black churches in the 
South. Our objective is to send a very loud message that we will not 
tolerate it."  
      "These are acts of terrorism, and we hope the law enforcement 
officials will leave no stone unturned, as they did [in last year's federal 
office building bombing] in Oklahoma, to try to bring the perpetrators to 
justice," said the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern 
Christian Leadership Conference based in Atlanta. "If their purpose is to 
intimidate black folks, they're doomed to fail. It won't work any more 
today than it did at an earlier time." 
(Information for this story was also compiled by Betsy Peoples, associate 
editor of  "emerge" magazine.) 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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