Church Burnings Decried


Invoking biblical scripture, slogans from the civil rights movement, Talmudic scholarship and dark memories of the Holocaust, a coalition of African American and Jewish leaders offered a joint jeremiad Thursday against the recent epidemic of church burnings.

“We are here to speak out about these heinous, gut-wrenching, immoral and ungodly acts of hate,” said John Mack, head of the Urban League of Los Angeles and one of the founders of the African American/Jewish Leadership Connection, a 2-year-old coalition formed to rekindle a historic minority alliance that has come asunder in recent decades.

The religious leaders, speaking from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, announced that a trust fund to help rebuild the churches has been established by the local chapter of the NAACP at Founders National Bank.

Mack’s strong words were echoed by Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who quoted the prophet Malachi; Douglas E. Mirell, chairman of the Commission on Urban Affairs, who invoked the wisdom of Jewish scholar Hillel; Geraldine R. Washington, president of the local NAACP chapter, who harked back to the era of Southern lynchings, and Rabbi Stephen Jacobs of Woodland Hills, who recalled the synagogue-burning in Germany on Kristallnacht.


“It is a sad commentary on America when we reach the point where people cannot worship in a church of God because of the haters and bigots out there,” Mack said. “Americans must begin to get a grip on the extremism, venom and fanatical hatred that is destroying us as a society.”

Mack and a dozen other leaders spoke of the church burnings--more than 100 in the last 18 months in 35 states, mostly in the Southeast--as part of a broader polarization in society.

They cited the racial disturbances in Los Angeles in 1992, the divisive reaction to the O.J. Simpson verdicts, the anti-immigrant sentiment in Southern California and elsewhere, the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, the rise of the militia movement in the western United States and the swing to the right in Congress.

Mack praised President Clinton for his blunt talk about racism in America, particularly his strong reaction in recent days to the church burnings. But Mack decried a vacuum of leadership in City Hall, Sacramento and Washington, accusing Mayor Richard Riordan, Gov. Pete Wilson and House Speaker Newt Gingrich--all Republicans--of failure to “help us appreciate the beauty of diversity.”

The ministers and rabbis said that unspecified precautions have been in place at the First AME Church since skinhead threats against the church’s leadership a few years ago, and that federal, county and local law enforcement agents have paid special attention to other high-profile houses of worship in the area. Los Angeles is 1,000 miles away from the nearest church fire, in Portland, Ore.

The news conference followed by one day the release of a Justice Department report saying that federal authorities had investigated 216 church fires in the last six years, more than half of them in the last 18 months. Of those, 70% occurred in black churches in the Southeast.

A joint task force of Justice and Treasury Department agents and officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency are investigating the crimes and helping communities form watch groups.

In addition, legislation is pending in both houses of Congress to make church arson a federal crime, increase sentences for the arsonists and facilitate loans for rebuilding.