From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Disciples help rebuild burned African American church

Date 09 Apr 1997 08:45:42

Date: April 4, 1997
Disciples News Service
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Contact: Clifford L. Willis
on the web: http/


     CHELFORD, Ark. (DNS) -- It took one arsonist just a few 
moments to destroy the church home of a small community 
of Christians in rural Arkansas. It took 150 volunteers from 
across the United States just one day to defy the evil of the 
crime and to erect the shell of a new sanctuary for St. Mark's 
Missionary Baptist Church in Chelford, in southern
Mississippi County. 
     The morning of March 17, at the very start of a 10-day 
"blitz build" those volunteers and many of the three dozen 
members of St. Mark's stood on a bare concrete slab and 
prayed over the task that lay ahead. 

     Congregant Zandra Harris and her family returned to 
Chelford after Thanksgiving 1995 to find nothing more than
a few bricks where their church had stood a week before.
"This is your home -- you've been here so long, everybody 
is family, and it hurts. It hurts,"  Harris said. 

     But on the evening of March 17 the Rev. Waldo Campbell, 
pastor, along with women, men and children of his flock, 
scores of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and other 
volunteers worshiped indoors on that same bare slab -- exterior 
walls about them, a roof over their heads. 

     Organizers of the project promised a "miracle" and no one 
present could find a more accurate way to describe what the 
powerful partnership of muscle, precision planning and provisions
had accomplished in so short a time. Ten days later, the project 
was complete. 

     "Our church was destroyed by fire in 1995," Campbell said 
during the March 26 rededication service, "but because of the 
faith we had in God -- they destroyed the building, but the church 
remained." Although "the old frame structure was burned to nothing 
but ashes . . .  I met the church, and the church was still on fire for 
the Lord," the pastor exclaimed before 200 worshipers in the new 

     For the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the 
National Council of Churches, coming to rural Arkansas for the 
dedication of the new building was a welcome dose of reality. 
"When I walked into this church tonight, it all made sense -- all 
the things that you do sitting at a desk far away in New York -- all 
the letters that got written, and all the responses that came  . . . . and
going to churches when they began to gather up offerings so that
we could rebuild these churches," she said. 

     The rededication of St. Mark's "reminds us that America was 
founded on a great tradition of religious liberty, a tradition that 
gives us common ground for tolerance, healing, and understanding,"
said President Bill Clinton in a letter to the congregation. "I commend
all of you for showing us a sure path to renewal and reconciliation," 
added the former Arkansas governor. 

Some 325 volunteers contributed

     More than 325 volunteers representing at least 19 states and more 
than a half dozen denominations spent a week-and-a-half hammering, 
hoisting, sawing, digging and planting. Most of the volunteers were 
members of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations. Baptists,
Presbyterians, Methodists, Pentecostals and other faith groups were
represented as well. In addition, a variety of college student groups
joined the project over spring break. The students came from Midway 
(Ky.) College, Clemson (S.C.) University, Westminster (Penn.) College, 
Millikin University, Decatur, Ill., and the University of North Texas, Denton. 

     Funding for this approximately $100,000 project came from the National 
Council of Churches Burned Churches Fund. Disciples have contributed to 
that fund on their own and through the church's Week of Compassion and 
Reconciliation ministries. 

     Habitat for Humanity, working with the NCC, is in charge of lining up 
faith groups to supply volunteer labor for Burned Church Fund projects. 
The Rev. Jayna Powell, Homeland Ministries associate in charge of the 
Volunteers in Mission program, worked with Habitat to match the Disciples 
up with a congregation in need of labor. Hosanna Industries, a
Bakerstown, Penn.-based, Presbyterian-related charitable building group, 
engineered the details of erecting and finishing the building as well as 
arranging the flow of building supplies between St. Patrick's Day and 
Maundy Thursday. Hosanna worked with the Disciples in 1995 when the 
Volunteers in Mission program coordinated the building of an addition to 
East Hills Christian Church in Pittsburgh. 

     The project is among 97 church rebuildings completed or planned by 
the NCC Burned Churches Fund. But it's the first attempt to finish a church 
rebuild in such a short period of time. "This happened because of hundreds 
of phone calls I got from people saying we want to help rebuild a church," 
said Powell. Several churches rejected the idea of a quick-build, fearing such
a building goal was impossible. St. Mark's "caught the vision," she said. The 
build was scheduled for completion during Holy Week. St. Mark's member, 
78-year-old Lee Ella Murray, called her niece in Chicago to say, "On Easter 
morning, we're going to resurrect St. Mark's!"

     Ida Whitaker, a St. Mark's congregant, recalled confusion and despair the
morning of the fire. But the following day the Rev. Campbell asked his tiny flock, 
"Do you want your church back?' And we all answered in unison,  Yes!' without 
even thinking what a church would cost. But he was our pastor. He said the 
Lord will provide if you believe in him. Have faith, trust in him and you can do
it. And we said,  We believe.' We did. Sixteen months, eight days from the 
burning of our church, St. Mark's has risen from the ashes."
     A second priority of the Burned Churches Fund is to address the issue of
racism in addition to erecting buildings. Some believed that 10 days was too 
short a period for primarily white out-of-towners and African American Chelford 
residents to form a meaningful community. But from the first hour of the project, 
residents and volunteers were working side by side. By the end of that day, at 
an informal worship service, people who were strangers in the morning were 
holding hands, hugging one another, and characterizing the emerging community 
as an inspired model of ecumenical church. Volunteers and church members were 
talking about reunions by the end of the first week.  

Providing food is big job

     Linda Preston, Downey Avenue Christian Church, traveled from Indianapolis 
to help prepare meals and snacks for volunteers who were burning calories almost 
as fast as they consumed them. "They call me the brownie lady," said Preston, 
who made eight to 10 batches of brownies a day and took them out to the work

     The Rev. Dick Friedline, interim pastor, First Christian Church, Ventura, 
Calif., led the on-site food service. He has a background as a gourmet caterer, 
and treated the weary, hungry laborers to such meals as curried turkey, roasted 
pork with cranberry gravy and chicken divan. His kitchen crew prepared 2,574 
meals over the 10-day period. Chelford area churches supplemented the donations 
by cooking and serving some 1,042 meals. 

     Neither color, class, nor denomination held much meaning for the 10 days 
people were together at Chelford. "I was so moved to see so many different 
people from this community, from all across the United States from our 
enomination, from other denominations . . .  and to see that first wall go 
up -- brought me to tears," said Preston. 

     "What we are experiencing here is very much a glimpse of the Kingdom 
of God. We have people crossing every generation. We have people crossing 
racial differences. We have people crossing economic differences. All of those 
things are here -- none of those things are evident," the Rev. Powell observed. 

     "My impression of this is one of awe. It illustrates that once men put their
minds together for a common goal, with God as our source, that anything can 
be accomplished," said Lonnie Stewart, All People's Christian Church, Los 

     Still, the reality that this cotton-patch community was to be short-lived
was always present. "A lot of times we approach things like this from a  
do-good-liberal perspective.'. . . we go and fix it in the easiest way possible,"
said the Rev. Carl Zerweck, pastor, Disciples Christian Church, Plano, Texas.
"We walk away, we feel great, but the problems that presented the reality that 
we went to fix are still there. I have to go back and continue to deal with racism 
in Plano, Texas, and in Richardson, where I live, and in Dallas. We've got to be 
focused on the systemic issues that created this."
     While the building of the church was the centerpiece of the work trip, 
volunteers also fanned out into Chelford and surrounding communities to 
scrape, paint and side houses, build porches and repair roofs. On March 24, 
a score of volunteers traveled some 40 miles to Hickory Ridge to repair homes 
damaged in an early spring spate of tornados that hit Arkansas. 

     In a Palm Sunday sermon at Wilson Chapel, where St. Mark's congregants 
have been worshiping since the fire, the Rev. Campbell profusely thanked the 
Disciples and all the volunteers, the National Council of Churches, Hosanna
 Industries and all who had a hand in rebuilding the burned church. "We are 
proud to see that we have a church to worship and praise God in. We've been 
discouraged -- told you cannot build the church back. God spoke to the 
organizers of the volunteers,  God spoke to the National Council of Churches, 
God spoke to Hosanna Industries. And we saw a miracle begin to unfold on 
Monday morning. And now we can worship in confidence. We want the world 
to know that the God we serve is able to open doors that are closed in our 

     Linda Preston returned to Indianapolis, having experienced a glimpse 
of racial reconciliation. "When you know a person you can't fear them, and 
when you don't fear them you can't hate them," she said. 

     For the Rev. Jayna Powell,  justice was the underlying theme of the work 
trip. "Everyone who is here is committed to saying to whoever it was that burned
that church, we will not tolerate this. We will not tolerate burning down houses 
of worship, and here's how we're going to show you -- we're going to be a part 
of a miracle." 
                                                   - 30 -

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