EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated.
NASHVILLE (BP) — Fires at seven black churches within the past 10 days have fueled discussions of racial hatred, as the first occurred within a week of the June 17 massacre of nine black Christians by a white supremacist at a Charleston church.
Arson had been confirmed in at least two of the fires as of today (July 2) but none had been deemed hate crimes. One of the churches is Southern Baptist.
Southern Baptist leaders voiced outcry at the arsons in comments to Baptist Press.
While the fires are still under investigation, Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd said “racism and prejudice must cease.”
“The continuation of African American churches being burned in our nation is highly concerning to me,” said Floyd, pastor of the Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. “Our Southern Baptist family hurts for our brothers and sisters who have suffered these devastating losses, especially those who are suffering at the hands of individuals who purposely inflict harm. As members of the family of God, we stand with them in prayer and encouragement.”
K. Marshall Williams, president of National African American Fellowship of the SBC and pastor of Nazarene Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pa., called the arsons “the manifestation of sinful and wicked humanity.”
“We need a nationwide outcry and action on all levels of government and society to insure that these acts of terror and hatred toward African Americans who are worshipping the true and living God cease,” Williams said. “I recognize more than ever that, as Christians, we are in intense spiritual warfare. … So I cry out to the Lord to protect and heal the broken hearts of His people. And I fast and pray for the Lord to change hearts and send a revival and spiritual awakening to our land. We need the Lord!”
Frank S. Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said he is brokenhearted “at the burning of a house of prayer or God’s house and it disturbs me greatly because of the cowardice of such acts and the hatred of such acts of violence. I am deeply disturbed that people would act so cowardly and hatefully, especially toward a building where people gather for worship of our Lord, and it is a heinous act of violence that I pray will be mediated somewhat by the apprehension and the prosecution of these persons who are responsible.”
The fires have spurred a popular Twitter campaign #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. The NAACP tweeted that its state conferences are calling for black churches to “take necessary precautions.”
The latest fire destroyed Mt. Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in the small town of Greeleyville, S.C. The church had been rebuilt after the Ku Klux Klan burned it to the ground 20 years ago. Greeleyville is 65 miles north of Charleston, the site of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church that took the lives of the pastor, leaders and others ranging in age from 26–87 as they were praying in Bible study.
Arson was confirmed in a June 24 fire that caused $250,000 in damage at Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., a predominantly black Southern Baptist church that also hosts services for two Nepali congregations.
Arsonists torched College Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 22. A fire the following day burned God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., was suspected to be arson, but had not been confirmed.
A fire of undetermined origins destroyed Glover Grove Baptist Church in Warrenville, S.C., on June 26. Bobby Jones, the church pastor, told NPR that he had often discovered “KKK” scrawled on the building’s outside walls but said he hoped the fire was not set by arsonists. The fire left only the steeple and two walls standing in the church that was home to about 35 worshippers.
Greater Miracle Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Fla., was destroyed by another June 26 fire likely caused by a tree falling on overhead electrical lines, fire officials said. Damage at the predominantly African American church was estimated at $700,000.
A June 29 fire at Disciples of Christ Ministries, a black church in Jackson, Miss., has been investigated as an electrical fire.
Black churches were targeted by arsonists in the mid-1990s, when more than 70 black and multicultural churches were burned in a 20-month span, according to news reports.