Fires and Fund Raising

The Christian Century, August 28, 1996 | Go to article overview

Fires and Fund Raising


A FUND-RAISING campaign by the National Council of Churches to help rebuild burned churches, most of them used by black or mixed congregations, has attracted over $9 million in gifts and loans from a variety of sources ranging from foundations to individuals. But the fund and the NCC's response to the arson attacks on black churches are also proving to be controversial.

The NCC gained national publicity after it set up the fund and issued statements warning of the danger of widespread and increasing racism against the black community. Critics of the NCC campaign, most of whom are aligned with politically conservative constituencies, while acknowledging that the burning of even one church is a matter for concern, argue that the NCC has misled people into thinking white racists have mounted a major new assault against black churches. The critics have also questioned the NCC's plan to keep part of the money it has raised for its own antiracism program.

The Wall Street Journal weighed in with an August 9 front-page article on the issue. Linking the NCC's advocacy role on behalf of the burned churches with the council's internal fund-raising efforts, reporter Monica Langley raised the question of whether the NCC's efforts may represent a "too creative" approach to fund raising.

According to the Journal, the NCC had been struggling to raise money to fund racial-justice programs, but by "couching the burnings as a national disaster orchestrated by organized white supremacists groups" and by buying "provocative" advertising in major newspapers, the organization "has raised more money more quickly than it has for any previous cause." The article also questioned the NCC's accountability for use of contributions after reporting that some donors to the campaign were concerned after learning that money may be used for purposes other than rebuilding churches.

A more partisan blast was leveled at the NCC by the Institute on Religion and Democracy's Dianne Knippers who, in a letter to NCC General Secretary Joan Brown Campbell on August 10, said the NCC should apologize for perpetrating the "great church-fire hoax." Knippers's letter claimed the NCC had created the church arson story, "absent evidence that black churches burn more frequently than white churches, to raise money for its leftist political agenda." The IRD is a conservative advocacy group that focuses on attacking what it views as mainline churches' liberal distortions. According to an IRD press release, "NCC spokespersons have jawboned the church burnings into a national crisis."

In a letter replying to Knippers, Campbell wrote that the NCC "has nothing for which to apologize." The council is not "perpetrating a hoax," she said, but has "played an important part in bringing to the nation's attention the suffering of pastors and their congregations, isolated from one another and largely ignored before June." She said the NCC has "long stood against racism" and has "responded to the suffering" caused by racism at the insistence of its member churches.

According to Campbell, the increase in the number of burned black churches is real. She said arson and vandalism at African-American and multiracial churches has "increased dramatically and persistently over the past 18 to 30 months." She called the increase "all the more startling" because church burnings overall had declined in recent years.

Campbell also denied that the NCC has claimed that every black church burning has had racial overtones, but she did point out "a clear pattern of racist motivation that is not true of attacks on white churches. …

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