From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Presbyterian World Service Responds
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
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
"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
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,
may also be sent directly to Central Receiving Service, 100
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
"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 PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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