National Catholic Register


Religious Hatred is Factor in Church Burnings

BY Jim Cosgrove

July 7, 1996 Issue | Posted 7/7/96 at 2:00 AM


PASTOR ALFRED BALDWIN describes his 200-member church community as multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial. And since the June 13th pre-dawn blaze that destroyed their “L” shaped wood-and-brick First Missionary Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., the congregation has also become more ecumenical.

“All denominations have responded beautifully,” Baldwin exclaimed. “From donations to so many offers to use their facilities. We have heard from all denominations, including both of our Catholic Churches here in Enid and others out of state.”

Baldwin pursed his lips and paused to look around at the piles of ash, debris, insulation and twisted metal that are all that remain of his gutted church. “We have seen a great outpouring of love. Satan may have meant it for evil, but God can make something good out of this. Everyone is appalled about this situation.”

As images of torched church buildings across the country dominate television and print media, a national vision of religious unity is beginning to emerge, a vision that transcends race and religious denominations.

Three of the largest representational faith groups in the country, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), the National Council of Churches (NCC), and the American Jewish Committee, formally joined forces to battle the wave of arson attacks. The organizations also sponsored an advertisement in The New York Times declaring that “the burning of a house of worship is an assault to the soul and spirit of the entire human family.”

The Christian Coalition, a political network of 1.7 million members and supporters, held a summit in mid-June for pastors of African American churches. It also established a “Save the Churches Fund” to provide financial help for the churches that are rebuilding, and to supply equipment, such as alarms, motion detectors, floodlights and smoke detectors, for churches that could be or have been fire targets.

Habitat for Humanity International has made a commitment to help the communities that have lost churches through arson. On June 20, eight of America's leading charitable foundations announced that they were contributing $2.7 million in grants to the National Council of Churches’ Burned Churches Fund.

More than 55 percent of the 216 church arson attacks investigated by federal agents since 1990 have occurred in the last 18 months—two thirds of those have taken place in the Southeast. And although the Southeast has many more white churches than black churches, 56 percent of the recent attacks targeted churches with predominantly black congregations.

Since January, 78 percent of all suspicious church fires in the Southeast occurred at black churches, prompting Church and political leaders across the country to publicly condemn what some call an epidemic of racial hatred. “We often think in these situations that it's happening to other people, that it doesn't affect us,” Cleveland, Ohio Bishop Anthony Pilla told the Register.“It could happen to black churches; it could happen to Catholic churches; it could happen to Jewish synagogues; it could happen to Moslem mosques. We're all subject to this.”

According to Bishop Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the attacks are tragic not only for the black churches but for the entire country. “When one of us is hurt we're all hurt. And it's foolish to think that it doesn't impact us.”

Currently there is little or no evidence pointing to a national conspiracy. Without proof that the high number of church fires are related in some way to a plan or conspiracy, federal investigators are left with the difficult task of trying to piece together answers for separate acts of racial and religious hatred.

“I think it's sacrilegious, scandalous,” said Bishop Curtis Guillory, S.N.D., one of the 13 active African-American Catholic bishops in the country. “When someone burns a church they are burning the soul of the faithful. I think there is not only racial but also religious hatred, and I'm sure some of it is the copycat syndrome.”

Whatever motivates the arsonists, added Bishop Guillory, auxiliary of the Galveston-Houston, Texas diocese and chair of the NCCB Committee on African American Catholics, “it's gone too far.”

“It is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents,” said President Clinton in his June 8 radio address to the nation. “We must come together, black and white alike, to smother the fires of hatred that fuel this violence. This must stop.”

An additional $21.5 million in funding was recently announced for what is already the largest federal arson investigation in history. But for the more than 250 FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agents investigating the cases, the evidence can be over-whelming—and complex.

Not all attacks on these houses of worship involved racial motives. Investigators acknowledge that the probe—which also includes white churches, synagogues and mosques— has revealed that religious hostility is driving many of the attacks. For example, the night that two black churches in Kossuth, Miss., were destroyed by arson, a third church in the town with a predominantly white congregation escaped a failed arson attempt, apparently because intruders were unable to pry open the rear door of the building.

Most of the recent fires have taken place late at night in poor, isolated, rural areas in the South. They have often involved old churches with historic links to the region's black communities. But on June 20, an arson fire destroyed the sanctuary of a racially mixed church in Portland, Ore., the first such fire in the Northwest.

Still, in relation to the overall count of churches in the country, the number of fires involving black churches is disproportionately high. The fires have captured the attention of civil-rights groups not only because of their number, but because of the role played by black churches in the South as symbols of identity, community and hope. The flames have rekindled memories of church burnings during the civil rights era of the 1960s that were meant to intimidate African-Americans.

“The church in the black community has always been a stronghold,” Bishop Guillory told the Register. “Not only is it a place of worship, but historically it has also been the only place where African Americans could really gather and feel a sense of security and a sense of ownership. The churches have played not only a religious role, but also a very important social, educational, as well as political role in the African American community.”

The recent attacks on black churches have often been accompanied by traditional signs of hatred: a burning cross on the front lawn of a black resident in the Portland suburb of Gresham a week before the church fire; a knotted hang-man's noose at a Shiloh Baptist church in Baton Rouge, La.; the words “Die Nigger Die!” and “White is Right” painted on the back door of a burned-down Knoxville, Tenn., church.

“Accidents” account for only about 7 percent of all the church fires that have been investigated in the last six years. In several cases investigators have tied racist groups—including the Ku Klux Klan, the White Aryan Nation and skinheads— to the incidents. Although many suspects have expressed racist views, agents remain perplexed by the lack of a thread tying the fires together.

The Enid case shows how tough solving the mystery will be. Enid police have arrested and charged a 35-year-old white man in the arson fire at First Missionary Baptist. The man is a former mental patient described as developmentally disabled, making the motive unclear and apparently unrelated to any kind of national conspiracy.

Longtime black civil rights leader Roy Innis of Houston has called for an end to the media and political “hysteria” over the fires. Innis argues that the number of church burnings has been steadily declining in recent years and that the attacks are equally divided among black and white churches.

“That's the real story. And for the American people to think this is some one-sided racial thing where black churches are being burned—and not white churches—is a mistake,” Innis said in a recent interview with Reuters.

Said Bishop Pilla: “We as churches have to begin with our own selves. We have to try to work on attitudes that are the basis of this kind of behavior. Families need to make sure that around their tables and in their family's conversation they don't encourage that kind of bigotry. This is something we should all be concerned about.”

Pastor Baldwin agrees. Thinking over the many lives that joined together to build the 103-year old congregation, he acknowledges the congregation must look forward and not back. “What I feel is hurt. It's devastating to see go up in minutes what took years to build.”

“But we may never know why. As the song says, we accentuate the positive,” Pastor Baldwin said, while looking over the ashen remains of the church sanctuary. “We believe our healing began when we said: ‘ We forgive.’ What these fires have in common is that individuals are filled with a spirit of hate. It is defeatist to say we hate those who did this. We want to help by our example to restore the Spirit of love.”

Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda is based in Norman, Okla.