QWI News & Views

Reflections on Evil and Good on the Occasion of the Ground Breaking of Community Baptist Church.

by Harold B. Confer, Director Quaker Workcamps International © June 26, 1999

"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth. And the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create. For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing. And her people for gladness. I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people. And there will no longer be heard in her the voice of weeping and the sound of crying."
Isaiah 65: 17-19

Good Morning. This is an occasion of great joy! We are not just breaking ground for a new Community Baptist Church but are celebrating the completion of the demolition of the old, burned structure by a group of international volunteers from Tanzania led by Friend David Miller last December, and two weeks of work on the new structure by volunteers from West Branch Iowa Friends Meeting, individuals from Sidwell Friends School and from upstate New York and then this last week from Apostles Lutheran Church in Sicklerville, New Jersey and the First Presbyterian Church, Ft. Wayne, Indiana. In addition, we are celebrating the work of the pastor, the elders and family of this church in raising the funds to rebuild this church, and in dealing with the myriad of details in planning and dealing with officials. We are celebrating the hospitality of the firemen who have hosted this church since it burned and the other good neighbors such as Brandywine Enterprises who have provided free trash removal services and other assistance. We celebrate the gift of free construction trailers here and at our housing site provided by David Sherman, owner of Allied Trailers.

George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends was well aware of evil which he called "an ocean of darkness." Two recent publications, one government and one from the private sector, give us some facts about church burnings in America to reflect on as we celebrate the birth of this new church. They are statistics that show us how pervasive this ocean of darkness is and why every American should be profoundly disturbed by these numbers and ask their friends in the media why these numbers have gone basically unreported.... The National Church Arson Task Force, (NCATF), a joint task force of the departments of Justice and Treasury, was created by President Clinton as one of many initiatives to attempt to combat this wildfire of church burnings. In October, 1998, the Task Force sent their second year report to the President in which they reported statistics from Jan 1, 1995 through Sept. 8, 1998. In that brief span of time they reported: 670 cases of proven church arson, 105 cases of highly suspicious burnings of undetermined cause, and 315 cases of accidental burnings.

This gave us a subtotal of 1,090 houses of worship burned from all causes. This week another report was published and presented to the Congress in a briefing held in the Rayburn Office Building on Wednesday by the National Coalition of Burned Churches, (NCBC), established last October to serve, partly, as a watchdog on the continuation of church burnings in America. Taking up where the NCATF Report left off, they reported: 68 burnings from September through December, 1998 (all causes), 57 burnings from January through April, 1999 (all causes). We have no definitive numbers from May nor this month except to report a church burned in Tennessee last week, mentioned in the NCBC briefing, and three Jewish synagogues that were reported burned in the press on the West coast in the last two weeks.

So even though we admit incomplete numbers, our best and most reliable sources report at least 1,219 burned churches and other houses of worship since 1995 in America. Houses of worship continue to burn. How many hearing or reading these words were aware of the extent of these burned houses of worship? This is an ocean of darkness that bespeaks a domestic terrorism to equal any terrorism we face from foreign sources. Yet our response, as a people, as a government, and from our philanthropic sector has been inadequate to meet the needs. Even as we send health workers to Kosovo to help our soldiers who have been deeply disturbed by finding evidence of mass killings, we have made no such commitment to the pastors and families of our own burned churches even though many show clear signs of traumatic stress syndrome. Even as we prepare to spend billions to rebuild the war torn areas of Eastern Europe, our federal response to burned churches in terms of low-cost loans through HUD has seen only 7 churches able to avail themselves of this help. There are literally hundreds of churches that need help today that will not be helped because the people of America are unaware of these real numbers.

Today, we meet to celebrate, in Fox's words again, "an ocean of light that overcomes the darkness." God has not abandoned us, in spite of our turning blind eyes to that continuing burning of her houses of worship. We are thankful for the hundreds and hundreds of interfaith volunteers who have responded since our first rebuilding projects in Boligee Alabama in the summer of 1996. We are thankful for the litany of the churches they have rebuilt that are now being worshiped in once again: Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Boligee, Alabama, Little Zion Baptist Church, Boligee, Alabama, Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church, Greensboro, Alabama, Central Baptist Church, Marion Junction, Alabama, St. Paul's Primitive Baptist Church, Lauderdale, Mississippi, and Spring Hill AME Church, Dillon South Carolina. Last year other of our volunteers worked on the Full Gospel Powerhouse, Church of God in Christ in Wichita Falls, Texas which is still in process and incomplete. We are thankful for the work of just two weeks of volunteers on this church. We are thankful for the partnership with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance office who made our preparation possible. We are thankful for a wonderful interfaith staff-- Led by a Presbyterian Director, Dee LaRue, and a Unitarian Associate Director, Diana Stewart, a Lutheran cook, Tyler Bolles and a Catholic work supervisor `and host, Jim Swan.

But I am concerned. Because the media has not done a good job of reporting the continuing burning of houses of worship, most people do not know about the extent of this crisis. As a result we are finding it increasingly hard to recruit volunteers and raise money to continue this interfaith ministry. This next week, for example, we have only two volunteers registered to come. Most major denominations have stopped giving us donations because their people are no longer sending them earmarked contributions. Even the philanthropic world has turned away. We pray today that the news of this rebuilding will serve to rekindle awareness of churches and the philanthropic world to these needs of burned churches, no matter the proven or unproven cause of the burnings. No matter the cause, the pain and loss by a burned or bombed house of worship is as real for all.

We try, whenever possible, to visit a burned church within 72 hours of the burning as we did here. We try to offer pastoral support to the pastor, the church deacons and the church family. We share with them names and phone numbers of the network that exists to help them. We share with them how modern fire investigation is conducted so they will better understand what the FBI, ATF and local fire investigators are doing behind that ominous yellow tape reading: "Fire line. Do Not Cross." We tell them about the documents they will have to collect to help their insurance company. And then, if it becomes clear to us and the church, we offer to help recruit volunteers to help them rebuild. And within the paradoxical truths of the world of the spirit, our volunteers come away from their week in the sun, saying clearly, "God, thank you so much for this experience. I have gained so much more than I have been able to give!"

Let us pray together, God, we ask you to bless this church, her leaders and church family. Please protect those of your servants who come from around America and around the world to help rebuild. Heal, Lord, those of this church family who have suffered because of their church burning. Continue to make manifest your miracles to your people in this process of rebuilding together. Open the eyes of all your people to this continuing crisis. Transform those who burn churches and keep us mindful of the need for us to love them and not hate them. Thank you God, for this opportunity to join hands with all those of your wildly diverse family to witness to your love through and for your people who suffer.

Let the church say, A-men!

Quaker Workcamps International
1225 Geranium St., NW
Washington, DC 20012
(202) 722-1461 Office
(202) 723-5376 Fax
Director: Harold Confer
website maintained by: Larry Clarkberg

last updated 6/30/99