ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP) — The North American Mission Board has established a fund to help African American churches that have been damaged or destroyed by fire in the past two weeks.
Fires at seven black churches have fueled discussions of racial hatred, as the first occurred within a week of the June 17 massacre of nine black Christians by a 21-year-old white supremacist at a Charleston church.
As investigations into the fires continue, two of the blazes have been confirmed as arson and a third has been ruled suspicious. While none of them have been deemed hate crimes, NAMB is already offering assistance.
“Southern Baptists should be the first to condemn acts of hatred toward African Americans,” NAMB President Kevin Ezell said. “Regardless of the causes of these fires, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we need to come alongside and offer whatever assistance we can.”
NAMB is starting the fund with $50,000 to be immediately available to the churches in need of assistance.
“It has been heartbreaking to hear of these fires,” Ezell said. “We wanted to provide an easy, centralized way to help.”
Fred Luter, senior pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and new national mobilizer for NAMB, said while African American churches are in need at the moment, “what is happening today could happen to any of our churches in any of our states.
“We are living in a crazy day and time when there is no respect for God, no respect for the Bible or for houses of God. So these kinds of things could happen anywhere,” Luter said. “I would encourage all Southern Baptists around the nation to pray for those churches in South Carolina and elsewhere that have been impacted.”
Luter appealed to Southern Baptist pastors to lead their churches in a response.
“I would encourage pastors to put themselves in the place of these pastors whose buildings are destroyed,” Luter said. “Pray for them, yes, but do all you can to contribute to this fund so we can help our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
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. It is the only black Southern Baptist church damaged to date.
Arsonists torched College Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., on June 22. A fire the following day at God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., was suspected to be arson, but that had not been confirmed. Other fires occurred in Greeleyville, S.C.; Jackson, Miss.; Tallahassee, Fla., and Warrenville, S.C.
Southern Baptist leaders comment
Key Southern Baptist leaders voiced outcry at the arsons in comments to Baptist Press.
SBC 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 SBC 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.”
Two churches previously reported in Baptist Press and other media outlets as black congregations are in fact majority white: namely, College Heights Baptist Church in Elyria, Ohio, a Southern Baptist congregation that suffered $1 million in damages in a June 27 electrical blaze, and Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Gibson County, Tenn., destroyed in a June 23 fire caused by lightning.
Church fires not uncommon
While federal agencies including the FBI are assisting in investigations, the number of fires is not out of the ordinary, according to credible statistics.
Between 2007 and 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 1,780 fires annually or 35 weekly at places of worship and funeral properties, the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit fire safety group, stated in its latest report released in 2013. Of those fires, arsons accounted for 16 percent, or 280 fires a year, the NFPA reported.
Marty Ahrens, NFPA senior manager for fire analysis services, advises the public to keep the fires in proper perspective.
“I do think the church shooting has made everybody, particularly those in the South, a lot more nervous and sensitive to any issues affecting churches, which is completely understandable,” Ahrens told Baptist Press. “While church arsons do occur, there’s a wide variety of motivations. … There’s a fair amount of petty vandalism.”
Most fires at churches are very small, she said, and about 30 percent are due to cooking. Additionally, churches are vulnerable to fires because maintenance work, including electrical repairs, often is performed by volunteers, Ahrens said.
1995 church arsons
Southern Baptists have helped churches recover from fires in previous years, including numerous African American and multicultural churches set on fire by arsonists in 1995 and 1996.
At the 1996 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans, messengers approved a resolution deploring the crimes, and pledged to, among other things, “pray for, support, encourage, stand with, and assist our sister churches and fellow believers in the African-American community who have been victims of these criminal acts.”
Southern Baptists contributed at least $724,000 to an arson fund initiated in 1996 by then-SBC President Jim Henry. The monies helped 98 African American congregations in 17 states rebuild after arson attacks.
Henry initiated the arson fund with an offering during the 1996 annual meeting. At the time, messengers gave $38,628 in cash and $57,690 in pledges; even before the offering, $185,000 had been raised in pledges by state Baptist conventions and churches. The overall initial total was $281,318. Henry, in his presidential address, had urged pastors, church and state convention leaders to “go home and take collections and free up resources to assist in rebuilding.” In an earlier news conference, Henry said he hoped the offering would help show “that we’ve come a long way since some earlier days when these kind of things happened and there was no response from our convention and evangelicals.”
NAMB fund donations
Those wishing to give to the NAMB fund for the churches can visit namb.net/givenow or call toll-free 866-407-6262. Checks should be made out to NAMB with “Church Fire Fund” on the memo line and mailed to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta GA 30368-6543. One hundred percent of donations will go to help churches — regardless of denominational affiliation — impacted by the fires.
Ezell said the fund is an example of the kind of activity NAMB will be undertaking under its new “Send Relief” efforts. In addition to traditional disaster relief activities, Send Relief will include meeting needs surrounding issues such as hunger, human trafficking, International Learning Centers in Send Cities, medical and dental needs, military and first-responder family support and national construction projects among others.