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What's behind the burning of black churches: major religious leaders attack national climate of tension.

The Rev. W.D. Lewis reckons he talks to God just about everyday, usually when he is out behind his rickety blue wood-frame farm house, working the field - picking tomatoes, sweet potatoes and cucumbers under the blistering Alabama sun.

Some days, the 92-year-old says, "God don't say nothing." Other days, he says, "The Lord reveals things to me. I'll be out in the field sometimes, and he'll be talking to me so plain that I look around to see if there is anybody talking to me."

In early January, on one of those good conversation days, Rev. Lewis says, Cod told him that a change was coming to the backwoods town of Boligee, where he has been pastor at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church for 46 years. "I knew something was going to happen. I didn't know what it was going to be, but I knew it was going to be something," he says colorlessly as he uses his wrinkled white handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his jet black forehead, his sturdy oak cane dangling between his thumb and curled-up index finger. "One thing about the Lord, when he tells me somethings gonna happen, its gonna happen."

One week and one phone call later, something did happen. In the late night hours of January 11, a church member called Rev. Lewis to tell him that his little red-brick church - which, since the 1790s, sat atop a small tree-lined hill on the bank of a tiny creek where many of its 100 or so members had been baptized - was on fire. He was told flames and smoke were shooting out of the stained windows and shingled roof, sending out an eerie devilish glow throughout the angel-blue sky. He was also told that Mt. Zoar Baptist Church a few miles down the road had met the same fate. It, too, was on fire. By morning both churches were little more than charred rubble.

Rev. Lewis believes someone "with a lot of hate in their heart" torched both churches in Boligee that night and that others with the same hate committed the same unthinkable acts of arson to the more than 70 other Black churches across the country that have been firebombed in the past 18 months. But instead of hating back, Rev. Lewis and his congregation, along with other victimized church families across the country, have found the faith to rebuild their churches. As a result of their strong faith and strong find-raising efforts - hundreds of thousands of dollars have been raised to establish national rebuilding funds - more than one dozen burned out churches have been rebuilt, repaired or are under construction.

Meanwhile, Black government, civil rights and church leaders have stepped to the forefront to express outrage at the burnings and are working to ensure that the fires, which started in the South and eventually spread to the North and Northwest, never happens again.

What's behind this unprecedented burning of Americas Black churches? Is it a national conspiracy by the KKK, the Skinheads or some other hatemongers? Is it a case of thrill seekers getting their fix by torching Black churches? Or is it the actions of hardened bigots acting alone or in small groups across the country?

Deval Patrick, the Department of Justice's assistant attorney general for civil rights, said while there may not be a national conspiracy, he hasn't ruled out anything else. He is convinced that racist attitudes are widespread across the country, and he has urged Congress to "speak up and speak out against hate, against bigotry and against violence."

National conspiracy or not, major religious leaders interviewed for this article blame "a national climate of conspiracy." Bishop John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Dr. Henry J. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., blame in particular national political leaders who, they said, created a climate of tension in the last two decades with attacks on affirmative action and other gains of the '60s.

"Leadership created a climate that is mean, nasty and hateful," says Bishop Adams. He also says he is calling on leadership at the national, state and local levels to build a new climate of inclusion, quality and morality."

Outraged by the unprecedented attack on the Black Church, Congress passed a bill expanding federal jurisdiction over church burnings and strengthened federal penalties for such attacks.

Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., one of the original co-sponsors of the bill said, "The perpetrators of the rash of hate crimes and church burnings in this country are no more than cowardly domestic terrorists. They work under cover of darkness and anonymity to intimidate some and encourage others precisely because they, have neither the will nor the courage to be associated with the evil they seek to unleash on our land. It has been suggested that the objectives of their actions is to start a race war. However, there is every indication that the arsonists are confused about the country in which their climes are taking place."

The Rev. Jesse Jackson went a step further, calling the church burnings a "cultural conspiracy," saving the country must put an end to the racist climate that has made these burnings seem justified. "The burning of churches, the defacing of synagogues and mosques is the last stage of cultural terrorism. These Black church fires prove this is a time to fight back, not surrender," said the longtime civil rights activist. "We must demand a public policy...that does not lead to this kind of anti-Back, fascist mania."

Jackson says this change in attitude must start with the investigators looking into the arsons. Some have reportedly required Black pastors to take lie-detector tests to prove they did not commit the arsons. Others have finger-printed church members, issued subpoenas for church records, showed up unannounced at job sites and homes and told congregations that they all were suspects.

Historians say the arsons at Black churches are nothing new. Many are motivated by the same hate and intimidation tactics used by Whites responsible for church fires during the Civil Rights Movement and even the fire that destroyed the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston in 1822 , the site of the first Black church arson on record.

In many communities where churches have been torched, a spiritual revival is already happening. In Boligee, for example, Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church deacon Henry Carter says Blacks and Whites are now closer than ever, and children have become more involved in the church, many giving their allowance money to help in the rebuilding efforts. He says the church fires prove that the Lord indeed works in mysterious ways. It looked like a sad situation, this church burning and other churches burning, but in reality it helped to build a stronger relationship between Whites and Blacks in Boligee. Before Blacks and Whites rarely talked to each other, but now I think we all realize we're in this together."

Dr. Henry J. Lyons

President

National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.

Over the past two years we have seen a distinct return to the racist attitude of the '60s and an escalating sense of hate evolve in the United States Congress. You cannot put brakes on hate! As the leadership of a country goes, so goes its constituents. I believe these burnings have a direct relationship to the immoral, inhumane attitudes of our U.S. Congress. Last year we witnessed the devastation and unparalleled senselessness of the bombing in Oklahoma. Now we see a similar attitude of hate and ruthlessness manifested in these burnings. We've moved so far away from being a people who care about one another, to a people who ignore one another's pain. It's sad. It's unfortunate. It's mean.

As African-Americans, no, as Americans, we are going to have to realize that unless we take responsibility for our own destiny for our own destiny by exercising our right to vote, by being politically involved, by taking back our own neighborhoods, by doing more than just saying enough is enough, we will continue to witness more and more of this kind of overt racism and hate-mongering destruction. I don't sit out elections. I don't stand on the sidelines. I get in the fight on one side or the other. That's what we are al going to have to do. In our political lives, in our neighborhoods, in our churches and in our streets. Get involved ... get together ... and get this country back to basics. Stop talking - more doing! Those who practice hate can only do so as long as we continue to promote it and to tolerate it.

Bishop Chandler D. Owens

President Bishop

Church of God In Christ, Inc.

The Church of God In Christ joins in with other major Black churches and all the people of good will in condemning these fires.

The Church of God In Christ has also suffered a terrible loss in three of its churches. I would like for it to be especially noted that President William Clinton was my guest during our International Women Convention, which was held in New Orleans. I made it crystal clear to the President that the nation was waiting on him to speak out forcefully on this pressing problem and to do all within his power to help stop the pain. This, the President did, and [he] also got the Justice Department involved. For this we are eternally grateful.

There is no question that the haters in our nation are responsible, notwithstanding the copycats. However, I am a firm believer in God that He will intercede and help us to stop these church burnings. THE FIRES WILL STOP.

The Rev. Willie Barrow

Chairman of the Board

Operation PUSH

The burning of the Black churches is an attempt to destroy the heart, soul and mind of the Black community. The Black Church was never designed to just take people to heaven. It is the all-inclusive mechanism for training our people. The Black Church has always been the hotbed for politicians, entertainers, lawyers, judges, preachers, etc. - for every rising star in the Black community. We do not have a Democratic Party, a Republican Party, an independent party or a press club - we have the Black Church. We are appalled at the destruction of our churches. However, make no mistake about it: Burning the buildings cannot destroy the Black Church, which resides in the soul of the people. We know that our ancestors worshiped God in invisible institutions in the brush arbors of the slave states, long before mortar was out to brick. Thank God that destroying the building cannot even singe the liberation power of the Black Church.

Bishop John Hurst Adams

Senior Bishop

African Methodist Episcopal Church

The centrality and determinative importance of the Black Church to the Survival, Development and Dignity of its people makes it the likely and prime target of the racist and repressive forces in our society. The Black Church has always risen to the needs of its people when things go bad as they ar now becoming. These torchings may be efforts to divide and intimidate the one institution and system totally owned by its own people in an effort to prevent what has to come: A freedom and justice movement to carry this nation back to its religious values ad constitutional base.

In summary, we have a leadership-created climate that is mean, nasty and hateful. We have an erosion of faith and fear of God, with its downside enhanced by so many conflicting religious views. We have a lot of loose cannons out there, and the churches are their most dramatic targets. They are the dramatic targets because the Church has been home base to the Freedom Movement and the breeding ground of most of its leadership.

The official leadership at national, state, county and local levels must intentionally build a new climate of inclusion, quality and morality.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Johnson Publishing Co.
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Chappell, Kevin
Publication:Ebony
Date:Sep 1, 1996
Words:1984
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