Church Burning: Using a Contemporary Issue to Teach Community Organization

Article excerpt

THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE REPORTED 28 incidents of church burning in African-American communities in the 17 months prior to May 1996 (Fletcher, 1996a). Most of the churches were located in isolated rural areas of the South and Southwest and two churches dated back to the beginning of the century (Associated Press, 1996). Burning a black church is more than destruction of a place of worship. Because the black church is a vital coping resource in African-American communities (Allen-Meares & Burnam, 1995; Daly, Jennings, Beckett, & Leashore, 1995) and integral to the daily lives of residents (Boyd-Franklin, 1989), church burning can be especially devastating.

The initial reactions of African-American communities to the 1995-96 church fires and the powerful responses which occurred later offer a useful context through which social work educators can teach empowerment-based community intervention (Gutierrez, GlenMaye, & DeLois, 1995; Weil & Gamble, 1995). Following a brief overview of the role of the black church in African-American communities, this article discusses the responses of African-American parishioners to the burning of their churches; Weil and Gamble's (1995) models of community practice; and ways to use church burning to teach community organization principles and skills to social work students.

The Church in African-American Communities

Black churches are often considered the pulse of African-American communities. They offer African Americans an opportunity to worship in a unique way and are usually the first institutions to which parishioners turn when in distress. Early African Americans regarded the church as a haven and the only institution that belonged entirely to their community (Boyd-Franklin, 1989). Churches also serve as political mediums and, with the exception of radio and television, continue to be the most efficient means of communication in African-American communities. Church affiliation diminishes isolation (Daly et al., 1995) and provides an opportunity to interact with positive role models who are themselves residents of the community. More importantly, black churches offer love, caring, and a sense of belonging, thereby supporting the social and interpersonal needs of parishioners (Carter, 1997).

Approximately 70% of African American adults are affiliated with a black church (Billingsley, 1992), and many continue to consider themselves parishioners even after they cease to attend services. Churches are an essential part of the natural helping systems that exist in African-American communities (Daly, et al., 1995). Natural helping systems, which include unlicensed beauticians, barbers, and transportation providers, reduce stress and normalize community environments.

Because of the central role played by black churches in African-American communities, church arson creates a serious and sudden loss. Through readings, exercises, and class discussions, social work students can thus learn appropriate and effective responses to similar crises.

Models of Community Intervention

Several models of community practice are currently cited in the literature (Gutierrez et al., 1995; Rivera and Erlich, 1992; Rothman, 1995; Taylor & Roberts, 1985). Based on an extensive review of community practice models, Weil and Gamble's (1995) entry in the Encyclopedia of Social Work provides a framework that combines eight extant models. The models were selected based on clear delineation of their basic purposes and desired outcomes; they include: (1) Neighborhood and Community Organizing; (2) Organizing Functional Communities; (3) Community Social and Economic Development; (4) Social Planning; (5) Program Development and Community Liaison; (6) Social Movements; (7) Political and Social Action; and (8) Coalitions. Advantages of the framework by Weil and Gamble over models such as Rothman and Taylor and Roberts are that Weil and Gamble distinguish between local geographic organizing and organizing functional communities at the local, regional, state, national, or international levels, and that they make clear differences between social development, which is generally empowerment-based, and economic development, which has more of a technical focus (Weil, 1996). …