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Church Rebuilding Project Shifts Focus

From Religion News Service

The National Council of Churches--which has taken the lead in assisting predominantly black churches burned in a spate of fires since 1995--is moving into the second phase of its Church Rebuilding Project.

The transition is being marked by a convocation of pastors of burned churches and denominational leaders from across the country gathered for a three-day meeting in Washington this week.

The newest efforts will move the council beyond the construction of new churches into what its officials hope will be the rebuilding of communities by addressing issues of racial justice. A variety of initiatives have been proposed, ranging from racism education to employment training and partnering with local reconciliation efforts.

A federal task force reported this week that racism was but one of several reasons for the rash of fires at 429 houses of worship. However, National Council of Churches officials have focused on helping 90 churches they believe were burned in fires prompted by racist motivations.

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One of the key components of the second-phase plans is cooperation on public advocacy issues with a variety of organizations, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.

Jackson, in a speech Monday to the convocation, warned against what he called “touchy-feely” racial reconciliation.

“If we’re going to reconcile, let it be on some agenda of structural substance,” he said.

Jackson suggested it might be time once again for large, public demonstrations to mobilize congregations to be politically active. He suggested actions similar to the “freedom rides” that crisscrossed the South in the 1960s, or interracial marches representing “a coalition of conscience.” “Don’t let these folks convince us that marching does not work,” he said. “We must begin to act again.”

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The Rev. Bennett W. Smith, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, echoed Jackson’s sentiments in a speech later in the day.

“You’ve got to go back into your community and organize your church into a social and political action team,” he told the pastors of burned churches. He urged them to withdraw their personal funds from banks that do not give them loans to rebuild their churches, and to recommend that blacks do not deal with insurance companies that refuse to insure new churches.

But even as plans were being made to move beyond solely rebuilding churches, some representatives of the dozens of burned churches at the meeting said they were still dealing with problems others had faced a year ago when the National Council of Churches helped bring the church-burning issue to national attention.

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Gloria Fountain, secretary of New Calvary Church of God in Christ in Camden, Ark., said members of her congregation, whose building burned last July, felt mistreated by authorities who made them feel like possible perpetrators rather than victims.

“They really harassed us,” she said. “Three of us had to appear before a grand jury two weeks ago.”

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, the national council’s general secretary, said such complaints are “much more isolated” since council representatives and pastors of burned churches met a year ago with federal officials who oversee FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents. But she said newly voiced concerns will be raised again with federal officials.

Some pastors at the meeting continued to report frustration in the process of rebuilding--from having fires ruled accidental in communities fraught with racial tension to having several banks deny them rebuilding loans.

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“We’re living through holy hell here,” one pastor said.

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As council staffers reached out to pastors seeking assistance, the Rev. Daniel Donaldson stood to paint a brighter picture.

Donaldson, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Fruitland, Tenn., recounted how his church was destroyed by arson in December 1995 and received help from Southern Baptists, the national council and other volunteers.

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“We rebuilt a half-million-dollar church and right now we are debt-free,” he said, garnering applause. “There are a lot of groups out there willing to help and work. Everything that is out there is not all negative.”

Campbell also spoke optimistically about the opportunities for new cooperation in the second phase of the council’s plans.

“I think we have the possibility for partnering in the religious community, certainly beyond the membership of the National Council of Churches,” she said.

She noted that the ecumenical council of 33 mainline Protestant and Orthodox Christian denominations received its largest donation to its Burned Churches Fund from the Roman Catholic Church, and had Unitarian Universalists actively involved in the process of giving grants to burned churches.

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Campbell said the council raised $7.5 million in cash and received other in-kind assistance from a variety of religious and nonreligious sources that was used mostly to help rebuild the 90 churches helped in the first phase of the project.

Now, she anticipates the council will depend primarily on churches and synagogues for financial support of the proposed “National Religious Partnership for Racial Justice.”

“Our goal is to create communities where burning any house of worship is intolerable and universally condemned,” reads a proposal for the project’s second phase.

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