Coalition still working to stamp out scourge of church burnings

Saturday, March 9, 2002

LANCASTER, S.C. -- A chilly winter drizzle falls as the Rev. Ricky Hale picks his way through the charred ruins of the New Zion Baptist Church.

The roof of the beige brick building is gone. Scorched folding chairs in what once was the fellowship hall are now rusted by rain. In the sanctuary, burned boards litter the top of the organ, its plastic stop keys melted by the heat.

"It's heartbreaking," Hale says. "The building burned, but the church is very much alive. We're just going to continue to grow in Christ and do what we can to rebuild."

Rebuilding is something dozens of burned churches across America will have to do this year, many of them getting help from the Charleston-based National Coalition of Burned Churches.

The group formed almost five years ago after a rash of church burnings across the South. And while the scourge of burnings has subsided and the nation's attention has turned to other forms of terrorism, the fires have never gone completely away.

"The same feeling I had in 1996, I have today when I see a burned church," says the group's president and executive director, the Rev. Terrance Mackey. "When is it going to stop? It just constantly goes on."

Mackey was pastor of the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville, S.C., when it was torched in June 1995.

Two Ku Klux Klan members were later convicted of setting the fire. In 1996, President Bill Clinton toured the ruins and prayed at a new church built about a mile from the rubble.

That year, Clinton formed the National Church Arson Task Force to coordinate federal, state and local law enforcement efforts in solving church arsons and bombings. Congress also gave federal prosecutors greater power to prosecute such cases.

But in time, Mackey says, it was as though everyone felt the president's visit had solved the problem. The nonprofit coalition was formed in 1997 to help burned churches as public attention waned.

Church arsons nationwide are down in recent years: from 409 in 1996 to 178 in 2000, according to coalition figures. The group is compiling 2001 figures through its surveys of law enforcement and fire departments. But the goal is a day when there are no burned churches in America.

"From 1996 to the present, church burnings have not been in the news and yet churches continue to burn," says Rose Johnson-Mackey, Mackey's wife and the agency's director of programs. "We have to ask ourselves, 'Is there a tolerance for the activity? ... If it continues to occur, none of us are being as aggressive as we need to be to make sure it doesn't happen."

The coalition, which gets support from foundations and various religious denominations, operates with its staff of four from a nondescript brick building near the Charleston docks.

It helps congregations of burned churches with everything from advice and modest grants for rebuilding to finding volunteers, from getting hymnbooks to simply letting church leaders know there is someone there to help.

The coalition's office has a map of the United States with a pin everywhere there has been a church burning in the past six years.

Colored pins stud the South and Midwest, reach into the Mid-Atlantic states and along the West Coast. There are few in New England and hardly any in the upper Great Plains and the northern Rocky Mountains.

The most church burnings occur in Texas, followed by Florida. Both are populous states, and Texas has the second-largest land area of any state.

"The place we're trying to move the nation to is that it should be unacceptable in the United States of America for anyone to desecrate a place of worship," Johnson-Mackey says. "Why can't we have that mindset that it's unacceptable, whether it happens in a black church, a white church or a Hispanic church?"

More predominantly white churches burn because there are more of them. "But we also know there is a disproportionate number of African-American churches being burned still, and they're burning in the South," she adds.

"Regardless of the race of the church, regardless of the denomination, we know that white males between the ages of 15 and 45 are burning churches, period," she says.

Churches are often burned in clusters, as was the case when eight black churches were burned in central Georgia during late 2000 and 2001. One of the churches, the Mount Hope AME Church near Macon, burned twice since 1999, and, when it burned last year, the cemetery was desecrated.

The congregation at New Zion Baptist also faces rebuilding for the second time in less than 20 years. The church, founded in 1871, was rebuilt in 1985 after it burned. Three other area churches also were burned or damaged in a series of arsons at the time.

Authorities have made two arrests in the latest New Zion arson that occurred two days after Christmas, but Hale says the congregation of about 100 doesn't have time for anger.

"Regardless of what the situation is, we just preach love," he says.

The biggest challenge is keeping members of the congregation -- some of whom drive more than an hour from Charlotte, N.C. -- focused on the job at hand.

"Like a sheep without a shepherd," Hale says, "they will stray away if you don't keep them focused, keep their minds and hearts knowing there will be a positive outcome."

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