ON THE NIGHT of June 17 fires destroyed two black churches in northeast Mississippi, at Kossuth, not far from Shiloh, the bloody Civil War battlefield. Someone apparently set the fires almost simultaneously at the Central Grove Missionary Baptist Church and the Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, and the damage to them was remarkably similar--everything burned except for the front facades and, in one case, the steeple.
These church fires were among the 74 arsons of black churches that have taken place since January 1995, most of them in the South. An especially disturbing facades and 48 black churches have burned in the South already this year, up from 19 in 1993. Such figures have prompted concern about a rise in racial hate crimes reminiscent of the days of white resistance to desegregation in the 1960s.
The Center for Democratic Renewal took note of the black church burnings in a late March news conference, attributing them to increasing white racism. The national news media soon fastened on the story with editorials, commentaries and widespread coverage of each new incident.
On August 18 President Clinton went to Fruitland, Tennessee, to help rebuild a black church burned this year. The president had already helped dramatize the awareness of the church burnings by authorizing the largest arson investigation in U.S. history, by promoting and signing a tough, bipartisan church arson bill, and by visiting a burned South Carolina church in June.
From early on, concerns about a conspiracy drove analysis of the burnings. Joseph Lowery, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, talked of the "national network of racial hostility and oppression in this country," while Jesse Jackson blamed conservatives in 'black robes" and "blue suits" for encouraging church arsonists in "white sheets.
At the same time, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich vigorously condemned the burnings of black churches, even expressing his commitment "to use the full force of the federal government" to "strengthen and protect Americans and their places of worship." Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition, appeared in Atlanta to condemn the burnings and promised to raise funds to rebuild churches.
By mid-summer, detailed investigations by USA Today (June 28), the New Yorker (July 15) and the National Fire Protection Association produced enough evidence to qualify the original claims that white racism was the singular factor at work in the tragic church burnings. Early reports failed to note that as many white churches as black churches had burned. Furthermore, while the rate of church burnings has not increased among white churches as it has among black churches, there has not been an unprecedented outbreak of arson among black churches. In some parts of the South, rates of black church burnings are actually lower than in the past. Georgia experienced only one black church arson in the 18 months from early 1995 until mid-summer 1996, and in Florida four white churches have burned for every black church in the same time period. In Texas, twice as many white churches as black have burned.
Throughout the South, racism appears to be a primary factor in fewer than half the church fires. Of the 39 people arrested in 25 of the 74 black church burnings since 1995,26 have been white and 13 black.
The media's focus on the racial aspects of the church burnings has obscured the larger point that church arson has long been a problem, nowhere more so than in isolated rural areas. But church arson has been on the decline in the U.S., since its high point in 1980, when 1,420 arsons occurred. In 1994, the most recent year for which figures are available from the National Fire Protection Association, 520 churches burned.
BEHIND THE BURNINGS, white racism is often intertwined with other factors, including mental instability of arsonists, concealment of theft, vandalism, intoxication and attention-seeking. After detailed examination of the lives of 14 white suspects in black church burnings in which defendants were charged with racial motivation, USA Today concluded that the suspects had much in common: poverty, poor educations, social marginality and the abuse of alcohol. Racial feelings remain pronounced among southern whites, especially those experiencing economic hard times. Treating blacks with sheer meanness is a regional tradition that has not altogether died out.
White racism cannot be dismissed, then, as an insignificant factor in the burning of black churches, even if it is often tied in with other motivations. Sometimes the racial meanings are not obscure at all. In April 1993 three Pike County, Mississippi, youths went on a racially charged arson binge, destroying Spring Hill Freewill Baptist Church in Smithdale and Rocky Point Missionary Baptist Church in Summit. They used hymnals and artificial flowers to start the fire at Spring Hill, one of them yelling, "Burn, rigger, burn."
No state has a bigger burden from its history of race relations than Mississippi. Jim Ingram, Mississippi's public safety commissioner, recalls heading the civil rights desk of the FBI in Mississippi during the 1960s. In 1964, 68 firebombings of churches, businesses and homes occurred in the state. "We'd have fires all over the state on a certain night," Ingram notes.
Those fires were part of an orchestrated effort at white defiance in the 1960s. The context of the fires of the mid1990s has been dramatically different, as is evident above all in the white response. Local people, black and white, have pitched in to help rebuild burned black churches, raising the hope among many observers that the fires have brought whites and blacks together as few events recently have done.
In 1940 CHRISTIAN CENTURY published a still-insightful article titled "Is a Christian Community Possible in the South?" The author, South Carolina farmer, writer and Presbyterian layman James McBride Dabbs, pondered whether, in the days of Jim Crow racial segregation, in a system in which "two races live together but socially separate," it was possible to achieve a Christian community, which he defined as "a community of persons," not of human social categories.
Legal Jim Crow segregation has been dead three decades now, but Dabbs's question still has urgency. The South's churches remain mostly segregated, often institutionalized in separate evangelical Protestant denominations that are carriers of ethnic and regional cultural traditions identified with one race or the other. Despite the end of racial segregation laws, southerners continue, as in Dabbs's time, to live and work together but remain socially separate, and religion reflects that reality.
THE ARSONS of black churches can be seen as reflecting the same old racial tensions as in the past, but the reaction to the burnings raises a new question: Does the white response to the fires represent a moment of epiphany in black-white Christian relations in the South?
Again, Mississippi offers revealing glimpses of an answer. After the Kossuth church burnings, the mostly white Tate Baptist Church in nearby Corinth hosted a Unity Service, with an overflow, interracial audience of 750 people that included the congregations of the two churches burned. Particularly dramatic was the sharing of communion among blacks and whites, a still-unusual event in the South.
The preachers sought to put the tragedy in a broader context than race relations. The shared evangelical Protestant theology of these black and white Baptists easily provided a common language, one that has been evident throughout the South this summer in local interpretations of the burnings. "Satan wants us to tie it into colors so we can fight over it and kill one another," said Donald Anderson, pastor of Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Corinth. For him, the burnings simply demonstrated that "there is very little respect for anything holy--for anything that is right. That is not a color problem."
Anderson's words were punctuated by the crackling of thunder and the flash of lightning. Greg Warnoch, pastor of Tate Baptist Church, praised the service "as one of the greatest meetings of the church that I've been around," and told the group that the thunderstorm "just shows we are creating too much energy."
THE BLACK CHRISTIANS who suffered through the burning of their churches in northeast Mississippi offered grace in the face of their tragedy, helping to facilitate the interracial religious communion. "I will preach forgiveness, not vengeance at all," said Perry Carroll, the 32-year-old pastor of Central Grove Church, the week before the Unity Service. Carroll interpreted the burnings as the devil at work: "Satan has put his hand on this land. Now it's time for Satan to take that hand away." He prayed that the arsonists would "come to Christ" and recognize that one day they would "ask God for forgiveness."
John Edgeston, pastor of Mt. Pleasant Church for 11 years, wanted "the love and kindness that we have in our hearts" to lead the arsonists to "come and repent." Evangelical salvation could redeem even these destroyers of church community.
Black and white pastors in Corinth had cooperated in an interracial meeting in March, laying the groundwork for a biracial response to the fires. The March service grew out of a three-year relationship between ministers of both races who had been meeting in a prayer group and had established a Racial Reconciliation Committee within the local Pastors' Alliance.
Warnoch and Anderson had attended the February meeting in Atlanta of Promise Keepers, the interdenominational, interracial evangelical men's group, and found themselves so energized by it that they sought to bring together their Corinth congregations in an interracial worship service, which was held on a spring Sunday night.
They planned another meeting in the summer, which coincided with the fires in Kossuth, and the burned-out congregations there joined in the meeting. "The fires galvanized the elements that were already there for community betterment of race relations?" notes Warnoch. The burnings have "sparked an increase in commitment to racial reconciliation."
The Lighthouse Foundation, a Corinth community agency, has supported efforts to raise money to rebuild the Kossuth churches. "The end result of the arsonists' efforts . . . is not hatred but a united, committed community," says Hoot Wilder, president of Lighthouse. "This will only intensify our efforts on race relations to build a community of peace and harmony."
Everyone acknowledges the importance of outside assistance in rebuilding the churches in Mississippi and throughout the South. The National Council of Churches has spearheaded a massive fund-raising effort that has produced over $11 million in money, goods and services to assist burned-out churches, more than twice the estimate of replacing the lost facilities.
These funds will restore the black churches to their crucial role anchoring black communities. Under Jim Crow segregation, the church became central to black group identity. It was a social center, a locus for protest against racial discrimination, and a training ground for leaders. It also carried forward African-American traditions of storytelling, dance, drama and music. The local church gathered together widely scattered rural blacks to form a community that could implement common objectives and maintain the culture's traditions. Even if you were not a member of a rural black church, you felt its importance as a community institution.
Dabbs's question in 1940 was about the possibility of an interracial Christian community. Dabbs admitted that work brought whites and blacks together and enabled them to establish "some personal relationships," especially in white homes with black servants. This "slight and scattered" personal community was inadequate, however; because it was not intentional, there was "no institution concerned with cherishing or developing it." For a Christian community to exist in the biracial South, institutions must exist that are dedicated to "fostering interracial personal relationships." The churches in his day did not do so.
Certainly public and private community agencies today promote interracial cooperation, working to defuse tensions. But churches themselves as institutions have lagged behind such efforts rather than leading them. Ministers can promote interracial peace through public community welfare agencies, but that spirit often ends at the church doors.
Does this summer's reaction to the church fires suggest promise of a new interracial religious interaction? How typical are such religiously based efforts at racial reconciliation as occurred in Corinth, and how long w ll they last?
Oxford, Mississippi, a hundred miles southeast of Corinth, has witnessed a series of interracial church exchanges that offer further glimpses of the potential and the difficulty of such interaction in the deep South. The exchange began in 1992 when Duncan Gray III, rector of Saint Peter's Episcopal Church, sought out Leroy Wadlington, pastor of Second Baptist Church, located a block from St. Peter's in this small town of 10,000 people. Gray, who grew up in Oxford and lived through James Meredith's tumultuous integration of the nearby University of Mississippi in 1962, wanted to talk with Washington about what it had been like in the black community then.
"The more we talked the more I was amazed," Gray says. "We were one year different in age. We should have known each other. We had similar interests. Yet we didn't know each other growing up. And even though we are ministers in the same town, we still did not know each other well." Gray's growing realization of the implications of such enduring separation within a local context "confirmed for me that the Lord was trying to tell me something."
WADLINGTON says the realization of the parallels in our lives" led to a desire to take action. The two helped form a committee to promote a relationship between the two congregations, which began with the ministers exchanging pulpits several times. After the Episcopalians listened to Wadlington's eloquent and lively Baptist sermon, the university Episcopal chaplain, representing the congregation, thanked him and said that even though he was an Episcopalian, he had wanted to yell out, "Amen." The congregations enjoyed a joint summer picnic and received open invitations to visit each other's services and have done so on several Sunday mornings. Wadlington recalls that some of his congregants worried at first about how genuinely welcome they would be at the mostly white Episcopal church. "There was no problem with attending services at Second Baptist. Our doors have always been open to whites. There could be no fears of being turned aside or even fearing for your life." Some members of his congregation had apprehensions about going to Saint Peter's. "When talking with my parishioners there was an underlying concern. The questions were not always spoken aloud, but there was an undertone of concern: people wanted to know where we are going with this."
Small groups of roughly equal numbers from each church met together after the worship services to discuss their experiences. The Episcopalians, many of whom in the South are former members of non-Episcopal churches, told of enjoying the Baptist music and the preaching. A few of the black Baptists noted that they appreciated the Episcopal service but needed a guide to using the prayer book and to when to kneel and when to stand. A real point of difference appeared when one Baptist noted that no one told her wine would be used for communion instead of the grape juice that Baptists would expect.
The pastor of Oxford's First Baptist Church. Tom Atwood, has initiated a similar exchange with black Baptist churches south of Oxford in Taylor. This has also gone well, although it has raised some concerns among black Baptists that their churches might be swallowed up by the larger, wealthier First Baptist. The Southern Baptist Convention has aggressively sought in the past few years to establish black Baptist churches allied with the convention, and existing black Baptist churches fear losing their historic identity.
Moreover, with this summer's news of church burnings, some people fear that the rural black Baptist churches involved in the new relationship with white Baptists might be vulnerable to a racist hate crime. "The black church represents so much to the black community," notes Wadlington. "When it is lost to hatred, it has a psychological effect on the community."
Wadlington and Gray are hopeful that their exchange can build on a tradition of personal relationships that blacks and whites have traditionally had. Under Jim Crow, blacks and whites often came together in the face of tragedy. "Having lived for a short span in northern cities, that's one of the distinct things I could say about the South," Wadlington observes. "When there was a genuine need, people, white and black, came together. That's because blacks were always working in white settings. That presence made a difference."
Dabbs believed that these personal relationships could not sustain a real sense of Christian community without institutions intentionally reinforcing them. Still, they do provide a regional tradition to build on. Ironically, though, Wadlington sees less personal contact among the races in small-town Mississippi now than in the segregated past.
Nevertheless, the nature of small-town life presents the possibility for such coming together. This summer s church burnings offer a clear indication of how such interracial communion can happen. Whites have responded with open hearts when they have seen their black neighbors suffer tragedy and real injustice. The more difficult task, in the face of different cultural and denominational traditions, is to sustain interracial religious interaction in everyday life. Corinth's successful interracial Unity Service after the nearby church burnings grew out of three years of pastoral interaction and growing trust among congregations.
GRAY is convinced that Oxford's exchange can be "a model that's a key to our malaise in race relations." He sees the need to embrace the differences in being Episcopalians and being black Baptists. "Our stories are different. To say it openly, to flaunt it, is to celebrate the differences." But along with valuing cultural differences the churches must "claim and celebrate their unity in faith." The eternal is always expressed in culturally specific ways, and different social groups, such as southern blacks and whites, will inevitably retain their religious allegiances.
Such separate identities can become downright evil, however, if they prevent connections with other people. "There's something in me that needs Second Baptist," says Gray. "Not to be just like them, but to recognize that we are part of the same body, which we need to be connected to for organic health." To Gray, Oxford's interracial church exchange is a "metaphor for our different cultural experiences--don't hide them, but affirm them, and then go beyond them."
Dabbs described "Christian community" as a community of persons. Wadlington uses remarkably similar language to talk about the South today. "You have to be able to see each other and respect each other as individuals," he says. "Whether people are in the White House or on welfare, they are God's children, not just part of a class or group." In the South of Dabbs's day, tragedy could temper segregation. "That potential is still there, but people have so much to overcome."
The contemporary South has desegregated its public accommodations and its schools. Many of the problems involving race relations today are economic, especially with the South's high rates of rural black poverty. But southerners, black and white, continue also to wrestle with the meaning of integration for two groups that lived historically as part of societies that were separate and yet shared much in common, seen above all in the high value they have placed on religious faith. That embrace of religion and the compelling influence of religious institutions in southern life provide a rich source for achieving Christian community.
The church burnings in Mississippi and throughout the South have become symbols of injustice. Though the burnings cannot be ascribed simply to white racism, they have served to crystallize the yearning of many people of faith to bridge the historic divides in the South. The challenge is to build institutional arrangements that recognize and honor the religious traditions within the region yet structurally and ritually bring together blacks and whites for recurring communion that will indeed promote Christian community.
RELATED ARTICLE: 'Just a lot of hurt'
CHURCH. Fire. Georgia. That combination of words was exciting enough to attract the attention of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which came to Pine Lake Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to do a story on the burning of black churches in the South. Pine Lake Baptist's sanctuary burned on June 17.
But the church's interim pastor, Randy Mullis, didn't want to mislead anyone. Though the church was included in a widely distributed list of black churches burned, only 29 of Pine Lake's 1,000 members are black. In addition, though federal officials have not made any arrests, local officials are convinced (and Mullis agrees) that the fire started because of electrical problems.
Nevertheless, Pine Lake's story was broadcast across Great Britain, and the Washington Post called. Politicians wanted to rally around the church and raise funds in the name of combating racism. Mullis and members of the church, however, were uncomfortable with the attention.
"We don't have any problems racially," said Mullis, who is white. "Our insurance has been more than adequate in helping us rebuild. In a way, I was surprised with the widespread attention." Pine Lake Baptist has declined any additional donations, wanting to make sure that other churches aren't shortchanged.
The stories of church burnings that grabbed the country's attention this past summer brought cries of racism and fears of a return to the early 1960s when black churches were firebombed throughout the South. President Clinton spoke of "a disturbing rash of crimes that hearkens back to a dark era in our nation's history." The pastors I talked to, however, while not discounting racism as a factor, did not claim it to be the cause of the fires. For the most part, the pastors were withholding judgment until authorities make arrests and the courts hand down convictions. Of the 11 pastors interviewed for this story (all except Mullis are black), only one said his community had experienced racial tension before the fire.
"I would not want to fuel the racial idea," commented Elvin Lacey, pastor of St. Charles Baptist Church in Paincourtville, Louisiana. "Suggestions in that area would be totally wrong." St. Charles Baptist burned April 11 and no arrests have been made.
"I would hate to say it was racism, but everybody has their own personal feelings," said Wallace Johnson. "I don't want it to sound crazy, but I just don't know of anyone that would deliberately burn the church." Johnson's church in Camden, Arkansas, burned July 27. No arrests have been made.
To be sure, racism appears to have played a part in some fires. The Ku Klux Klan held rallies outside Macedonia Baptist Church in Manning, South Carolina. A few weeks later, on June 21, the church burned down. The night before that burning, Mt. Zion AME Church in nearby Greeleyville, South Carolina, was also burned. One of the two men arrested in the case had a KKK card in his wallet, and two other men with connections to the KKK were recently indicted for aiding the arsons.
"It was kind of tough emotionally," remarked Jonathan Mouzon, pastor of Macedonia Baptist. "Everybody--was upset--no anger, just a lot of hurt and a sense of loss. There's still no anger to this day. I can't explain it, but we focused more on getting the church back, and we didn't have time to feel any anger."
That focus on rebuilding the church has precluded many pastors from concentrating on the question of why their churches burned. When asked why someone would want to burn their church, most have no definitive answer. They're just as puzzled as the authorities are.
"Most of the time, we've been looking to the future," said Arthur Coleman, pastor of Mt. Zoar Baptist Church in Boligee, Alabama. Mt. Zoar was one of four churches in Boligee that were burned within a month this past winter. No arrests have been made. Coleman believes the fires are connected, but says, "I don't know if it's racial motivation. I don't have any proof. I have no problems with anybody." W. D. Lewis, pastor of Little Zion Baptist Church in Boligee, doesn't think--or doesn't want to think--the fires were racially motivated. "It's just something that's beyond our control. We'd had no problems at all," he said.
The funds needed to rebuild these churches are coming from various sources. While many churches had insurance, several pastors said they were . All the pastors noted that there has been an outpouring of individual donations. Some said they have received some funds from national organizations. Terrance Mackey, pastor of Mt. Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, South Carolina, said the church has received $20,000 from the National Council of Churches, and two other pastors said they have also been contacted by the NCC. Wallace Johnson of Arkansas and Alfred Baldwin of First Missionary Baptist Church in Enid, Oklahoma, said they have received donations from Promise Keepers.
In contrast to the national de response, local reaction to the burnings has been mixed. Some pastors said local churches have gone out of their way to lend financial and spiritual support, but others were surprised by the lack of support.
Asked about the community's response, Matthew Rouse Jr. of Mt. Pisgah Baptist Church in Redford, North Carolina, said, "The authorities have passed it off. They didn't put in any effort, and the sheriff has never returned my calls. With all the publicity we've had since June, the local folks still haven't done anything. No local church has done anything. This is a strange county. The county to our north has done a lot to bring the races together, but in this county, there has been no effort in a way that might be meaningful."
Mouzon and Mackey also have been frustrated with the local response. "I'm a little disappointed that some of the more prominent citizens didn't speak out. I was hoping they would say something against this kind of behavior, but they didn't speak at all," Mouzon said. He has another worry as well: he's afraid his church w ll be deep in debt after it rebuilds.
Mackey believes his outspokenness against racism led to his church's being a target. "As a community, our town did not respond. The mayor never responded. The chief of police never responded. The sheriff never responded," he said. "It surprised me at first, but people around here say it's always been that way. It's standard policy that the blacks w ll do what they do and the whites will do what they do."
Mackey said he has talked with a pastor of a local, predominantly white United Methodist church about conducting a joint fellowship service, but he's been disappointed by both black and white responses. "The church has to go above racism. When I see that not happening, it hurts me."
But in other communities, the fire has brought the races together. Baldwin praised the efforts of local officials and white and black churches, and said the fire "really brought Enid closer to us. I've seen an outpouring of love from Enid." Other pastors said local churches have loaned their facilities and baptismal pools.
Regardless of whether race was a motive for the burnings, most pastors agree that the attention given to the issue has been a valuable reminder of the need to work on race relations.
"I'm hoping what w ll happen is that there w ll be such an outcry against this," Mouzon said, "that maybe those pockets of hate groups in every city across the country will see they're a minority and they might abandon these things."
Christian T. Coon is a student in the joint program of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Medill School of Journalism in Evanston, Illinois.
Charles Reagan Wilson directs the academic program at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.…