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Church leaders nurture relationships to help town heal from arson attacks

GREENVILLE, Texas (BP)–Like broken bones knitting together, a fractured community needs time and caring attention to heal.
When the cleavage comes along racial lines, add other necessary elements — faith and fellowship.
That’s the conclusion of those who have lived through it. The gruesome, racially motivated murder of a disabled black man in Jasper, Texas, offers only the most recent example.
Two years ago, two African American churches in Greenville, Texas, burned. The church fires led residents of that northeast Texas town to see fissures in their community and find avenues for healing.
The Greenville church fires drew worldwide media attention, coming at the same time President Clinton appointed a task force to coordinate investigations into church fires at African American churches throughout the South. The Greenville fires also attracted outside groups ranging from the New Black Panther Party to the Ku Klux Klan.
But before extremist groups arrived and long after TV satellite trucks rolled away, Christians in Greenville worked to expand their understanding of brotherhood in Christ.
“It’s all built around relationships,” said Melvin Ray, a Southern Baptist chaplain and director of pastoral services at Presbyterian Hospital of Greenville. “If you don’t have relationships with people different from you, there’s no foundation to build on.”
When flames engulfed the New Light House of Prayer and damaged the Church of the Living God in Greenville, Ray brought together a cross-section of local ministers to pray and respond. The 18 ministers, both black and white, drafted a statement deploring racism as contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Those same ministers led in organizing a community-wide worship service one week after the church arsons. The service, held at Greenville’s high school football stadium, drew more than 3,500 people of all races represented in the community. At the time, Ray said their desire was to “dismantle the walls of separation and with those very stones build bridges of reconciliation.”
In the months that followed, Texas Baptist Men Builders led in building new facilities for the burned-out churches.
Danny Forson, a layman at Ridgecrest Baptist Church in Greenville, worked with a coalition of local business, religious and community leaders to raise money for the rebuilding. As a leader of Christian Men Advance, a local Promise Keepers-style organization that emphasizes racial inclusiveness, he also handled local arrangements for volunteer builders.
On the first anniversary of the church fires, Greenville residents met together at a local church for a service of celebration and thanksgiving.
However, it’s one thing to rebuild a couple of churches. It’s another to rebuild a sense of community.
Building churches was a tangible, achievable goal with a clear beginning and ending. Building relationships requires ongoing attention, and it’s harder to measure, Ray noted.
“When it’s emotional relationships, it’s more difficult. You can’t just donate materials or give money to rebuild or hammer nails in boards. You have to give your heart,” he said.
Religious leaders in Greenville point to several components that helped bring about healing in their community:
— Prayer. Believers must pray to see where God’s healing hand already is at work and to discover where they can be part of his plan, according to David Stubblefield, pastor of Ridgecrest church.
“It’s often overlooked because it doesn’t make good video and has the least media appeal,” Stubblefield said. “But it’s at the heart of everything good that has happened in Greenville.”
— Civic involvement. Churches become more fully involved in the lives of their communities when they participate in projects not directly related to their own congregations, Ray said. He noted in the past two years, churches have played a greater role in a community clean-up campaign. Recently, they participated in a Habitat for Humanity house-building project.
Becoming fully engaged in the community also means involving people of faith from all races in decision-making. As pastor of the predominantly black Bethlehem Baptist Church, Houston McLendon emerged quickly as a leader in the days following the two church fires. Today, he serves on the Greenville City Council.
— Leadership. Both McLendon and Stubblefield emphasized pastors need to lead in addressing racism from the pulpit, denouncing injustice and encouraging cross-cultural understanding.
“Pastors need to establish relationships with other pastors,” Stubblefield said. “They need to be the point men.”
— Honesty. When the issue is racism, Christians can take the lead in helping a community avoid the extremes of denial or over-statement, McLendon said.
“The church can encourage the good people to stand up and say to those small pockets of people who practice hate, ‘There’s no room for you in our community,'” he said. “Name the problem. You can’t put your head in the sand. Deal with it.”
— Communication. “Healing starts when communication starts,” McLendon said. “When a community is not afraid to address the issues and admit there’s a sore or an ill that needs to be fixed, then healing is taking place.”
— Relationship-building. Greenville’s churches needed to grow in their relationships with each other, but the process already was in place before the fires started, religious leaders noted.
“When the relationships already have been established in a time of calm, they provide a place for healing to begin in the time of crisis,” Stubblefield said.
Ridgecrest church has a close relationship with two predominantly black Baptist churches, Bethlehem and New Jerusalem, he noted. Pastors from the three churches have shared their pulpits with each other, and some of their youth have attended summer church camp together.
In addition to pastoral leadership, a growing men’s movement among Christians in the Greenville area also helped to establish trust between races.
“I believe that Christian Men Advance was part of God’s preparation for what we experienced,” Stubblefield said.
Chaplain Ray said he personally has become much more involved with a local alliance of African American ministers since church fires and the events that followed. Since then, he has preached in several predominantly black churches at the invitation of pastors he has befriended.
“I have a desire — a God-given, Holy Spirit-led desire — to see the barriers come down between believers and to see the church become one, as the Bible says we are,” Ray said. “Realistically, I don’t think it will happen until Jesus comes. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.”

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  • Ken Camp