Churches Burning

Coalition reps remind us arsonists still busy

New York Daily News, June 26, 1999
By Pamela Mendels

The National Coalition for Burned Churches has just ended a two-day trip to New York to remind people that the plague of arson continues.

Between 15 and 20 churches a month are burned, according to Rose Johnson Mackey, executive director of the coalition, based in Charleston, S.C.

The national total since the coalition began keeping count has reached 1,100, more than 500 of them black and hundreds of other congregations that are racially mixed.

"It's a national problem," she said Thursday at a briefing in the midtown offices of the nonprofit Center for Constitutional Rights. "But it's one we don't talk about or read about."

She's right. It was a hot story three years ago. That's when President Clinton declared church arson a matter of national priority. Interest has cooled since, to put it mildly.

For one thing, it's not easy maintaining page-one, prime-time interest in anything for very long. For another, most sanctuary fires are not arson, and people get confused about numbers and causes. And finally, the number of arsons are down.

For example, figures for the first five months this year report 57 church, synagogue and mosque arson fires versus 94 for the same period last year.

Incidentally, only one was listed in New York this year - the Catholic church of St. Anthony of Padua, in South Ozone Park, Queens.

Some of the coalition's key findings:

  • Texas leads the nation in arson fires, and is No. 1 in arsons motivated by hatred (mostly anti-black but also anti-religious and, in a few cases, anti-women).

  • Unusually high numbers of church burnings - and bombings - also were reported in Georgia, North Carolina, Indiana, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. (Arsons there range from one to five a month.)

  • More than 30 denominations have been hit by firebugs, with Baptist churches the most frequent target by far. Pentecostal and Methodist churches are next.

  • The National Coalition for Burned Churches was formed in late 1997 at a meeting in Atlanta attended by pastors whose churches had been torched.

  • By then, the National Council of Churches, nine charitable foundations, the Anti-Defamation League and others had raised millions of dollars to rebuild burned churches.

  • As the story faded, so did support, and now, says Mackey, the Council of Churches will close its rebuilding fund at the end of this month.

  • Of the 300 or so churches targeted for rebuilding by various good Samaritans, 176 at last count had been reopened.

This does not count other churches that Mackey said were rebuilt with other funds, including insurance money and separate fund-raising campaigns.

"It's probably not so big a story in New York," said the Rev. John Pace, pastor of the Red Oak United Methodist Church in Stockbridge, Ga., "but maybe it should be."

Pace has a pretty good story of his own. His church was torched in 1994 - before the headlines - by a white volunteer fireman who wanted to become a hero. Pace has rebuilt the sanctuary but not the fellowship hall used for social, youth and other programs.

"We had pretty good insurance," says Pace. "We got help from other churches, black and white, in the community, plus we got a [$30,000] grant from the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries."

Pace was excited about the New York trip for another reason. It was his first visit to the city, but not his first to the state. He was a Marine aboard the first military ship that passed through the St. Lawrence Seaway when it opened in 1957.

'I stepped ashore just long enough to say I was in New York," he says.

Pace made the trip with Mackey as a witness of another kind.

"When someone burns a church," he said, "they burn more than a building. They burn weddings and funerals and baptisms and memories."

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