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6/12/97 A year after arson attacks, community celebrates healing

GREENVILLE, Texas (BP)–One year after two church arsons drew the nation’s attention to their community, residents of Greenville, Texas, joined hearts, hands and voices in worship, thanking God for rebuilt churches and for spiritual healing that crossed racial boundaries.
“The Adversary meant it for evil, but God meant it for good,” keynote speaker Houston McLendon, pastor of Greenville’s predominantly African American Bethlehem Baptist Church, told worshipers who filled Wesley United Methodist Church for the June 9 celebration service.
Throughout the service, frequently punctuated with applause and “amens,” residents offered thanks to those who helped to rebuild the burned-out churches, including representatives from Texas Baptist Men.
One year earlier, arson destroyed the New Light House of Prayer and seriously damaged the Church of the Living God. Those fires at two predominantly African American churches signaled the beginning of a long summer of suspicious fires, mostly in a black neighborhood on the city’s north side.
Those fires drew worldwide media attention to the northeast Texas community and attracted groups ranging from the New Black Panther Party to the Ku Klux Klan.
The Greenville fires also came at the same time President Clinton appointed a task force to coordinate investigations into a rash of fires at black churches throughout the South.
The task force, which released its report on the day before the Greenville worship service, concluded that African American churches were not in the majority of the 150 arsons, attempted arsons or bombings that federal authorities investigated.
The panel found no evidence of any nationwide, racially motivated conspiracy to target black churches, but the task force acknowledged that houses of worship were continuing to be burned.
In fact, an abandoned Methodist church in the rural Bethel community just south of Greenville burned in the early morning hours of June 9. While that fire once again drew media attention to Greenville, residents at the citywide worship service focused their attention on the blessings of the past year.
“If you hang with God, he’ll give you double for your trouble,” said keynote speaker McLendon, who recently was elected to Greenville’s city council.
God blessed Job with a “double portion of blessings” because he remained faithful through a time of testing, McLendon said. Similarly, he said, God had blessed Greenville during its dark night of despair because residents turned to him and reached out to each other in a spirit of brotherhood.
McLendon noted new friendships were forged between white and black ministers and relationships developed between mostly African American and mostly Anglo churches in the past year.
McLendon also pointed out that the two burned-out churches now have larger, newer facilities than they did before the fires, thanks to the cooperation of their neighbors and concerned Christians around the state.
The nonprofit Greenville United Coalition, a group of local businesses, churches and community leaders, was created in the aftermath of the fires. Danny Forson, a layman at Ridgecrest Baptist Church, Greenville, worked with the coalition to raise money for the rebuilding of the two burned-out churches, coordinate the relocation of the New Light House of Prayer to a new site and handle local arrangements for volunteer builders.
TBM Builders provided labor for the construction, which was started during a January ice storm. The New Light House of Prayer recently held its first services inside its new building, and the Church of the Living God is scheduled to be completed later in June.
Jean Holliman of Sanger, Texas, one of the TBM Builders, recounted that she and her colleagues were “bridge builders for God in Greenville.” They came with no hidden agendas, “no hard feelings toward anyone, no past reputations to live up to or look down on. We were just some of God’s children, serving him the best way we knew how.”
The master of ceremonies for the worship service, Scott McManus, pastor of Greenville’s Living Word Church, pointed Greenville residents to the Apostle Paul’s admonition in Philippians 3:13-14 to forget what is behind and press on toward a higher calling.
“Forget rednecks, yellow cowards, Black Panthers and white Klansmen. We’re here to talk about us. Remember that red and yellow, black and white, we are all precious in his sight,” McManus said.
Melvin Ray, a Southern Baptist chaplain and director of pastoral care for Presbyterian Hospital of Greenville, pointed out that when the two churches were burned last summer, the first group to respond was the city’s clergy.
A group of ministers met in his office the morning after the fires to pray and to draft a statement on racial reconciliation. Wesley United Methodist Church opened its doors for an interracial prayer meeting that evening. And a week later, citizens of all races filled the local high school football stadium for a citywide worship service.
The one-year anniversary service opened with a lively, amplified praise chorus sung by a Hispanic and Anglo youth choir from a Pentecostal church. It closed in the same way as the prayer service at the same site one year earlier. Black and white worshipers, many with tears in their eyes, joined hands and sang, “We Shall Overcome.”

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  • Ken Camp