The Gospel according to the hammer

Millen, Ga.-Just west of the pine-dotted Savahhah River Valley, in a lonely clearing carved on rolling red plains, Hilda Dutrow and Willies Peter Holmes stand pointing at the place where Gay's Hill Baptist Church burned to the ground on a spring night last year. The remains of the old Gay's Hill Baptist have long since been cleared away, replaced with a freshly poured concrete foundation - and, maybe, a new understanding of what one observer calls "the gospel according to the hammer." Dutrow and Holmes still become emotional talking about the day in December when members of Jewish, Methodist and Baptist faiths- people of all colors and backgrounds - held hands, hugged and sang at the groundbreaking for the new church. "I have never seen people of so many faiths and races come toghether like this before. Not anywhere," says Dutrow, a relief effort veteran who is coordinating work teams from such farflung places as Pennsylvania, Vermont and California to help reconstruct the church. The solidarity began to form immediately after the burning. "In an early meeting eight men - four black and four white - went to dinner together and talked into the wee hours about (rebuilding the church)," said Dutrow. "They talked the next morning about how good that felt." Holme's church, to which she has belonged since the mid-1950s, was one of over 138 African-American churches that have burned under suspicious circumstances since the beginning of 1995, according to the National Church Arson Task Force established by President Clinton. More than 140 suspects have been arrested in those arsons; 48 perpetrators have been convicted. Now, the black churches that went up in flames are rising again in the South. So far, 20 churches have been rebuilt, and 35 more are under construction. Holmes' congregation - temporarily using borrowed pews - hopes to see its new building raised by July. "It's remarkable that the intent of these hate crimes was to drive people apart, but that instead it has had very much the opposite effect," said Joe Hamilton, a spokesman for the Atlanta-based United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. "It is bringing them together. Friendships (across racial lines) are bieng made as we speak, both within these congregations, and across the country," says Hamilton. "When you're out there sweating beside each other on the work site, there's an insight you get into each other as human beings." In this reconstruction, he and others believe they are laying the foundation also for better racial understanding and cooperation. "Maybe (the arsonist) thought that only Baptists would care, that only African-Americans would care. They were wrong," said American Jewish Committee executive director David Harris, speaking at a check presentation ceremony in Millen. "If their target was an African-American church, then I'm an African-American. We're all African-Americans. We're here to affirm an inclusive view of America. Harris' New York-based group - which contributed $87,000 towards the church's restoration - was far from alone. Bank loan guarantees, construction materials and checks have poured into an emergency grant fund set up to help dozens of burned churches - most of which lacked insurance - pick up the pieces. The National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization counting 33 denominations and 52 million members in its ranks, established the fund last May to rebuild burned churches. Nationwide, in just six months, close to $11 million in cash and materials have poured into the fund - donations that have so far assisted 79 churches, most of them African-American churches in the Southeast, whose burnings the national church council judges to be racially motivated. The Ford, Pew, Rockefeller and 20 other foundations put in a collective $3.2 million. Others, including the Christian Coalition and Promise Keepers, have set up their own funds, and the Congress of National Black Churches has received $6 million from the Lilly Endowment in Indianapolis. There have also been extraordinary efforts at the local level. "It was a variety of things," explains Don Rojas, director of the national counsil's Burned Churches Project. "Everything from cake sales to special collections on Sundays to fund-raising events by Sunday school children." A series of summer advertisements in large newpapers drew another $250,000 from individual contributors, "And that ranged from (contributions of) three single dollar bills with a note saying, 'This is all I can afford, but it's coming from the heart,' to $10,000 checks from people," Rojas notes. "We got literally a flood of mail from ordinary citizens." There have been other local efforts, as well. In Greene County, Ala. - an area where four African-American churches were burned, and two more vandalized - a Quaker work camp brought volunteers from across the nation to reconstruct two of the churches, for example. In Seattle an inner-city synagogue opened its doors to the New Hope Baptist church congregation after its church burned to the ground in May 1994 in a suspected hate-crime arson. Sharing its sanctuary with the Baptists, Temple Di Hirsch Sinai made room for New Hope's neighbourhood food bank, youth groups and choir practices, and held a candlelight vigil to demonstrate unity between the congregations. Young people are entering the picture as well. This spring, 10,000 college students nationwide are expected tp use their vacation breaks to help in the rebuilding, as part of a volunteer program called "Christmas in April," according to Rojas. More help will come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has promised $10 million in loan guarantees to the local churches. Some observers caution, however, that not everyone is happy with the rebuilding effort. Not every arson has produced new racial harmony in the surrounding community. "There's still a climate of fear out there," says Carol Fouke, spokeswoman for the National Council of Churches. Even as donations and prosecutions increased in late 1996, for instance, arsons continued to occur sporadically around the South. Critics including Diane Knippers of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington recently charged the church council with using the spate of fires to rasie money for itself and create what she calls "a false impression of raging racist violence." In a press release Knippers said the council's rebuilding campaign "has contributed nothing to racial reconciliation in this country. Its impact, if anything, has been to feed and fuel racial fear and animosities." Fouke said the cahrges are false. Eightly-five percent of the fund goes to rebuilding churches and 15 percent to anti-racism education including materials for congregations, according to Fouke. "If we're not convinced hate was involved, we don't gove money out of the fund," she said. Willie Pearl Holmes, the Gay's Hill congregation member, doesn't know much about the political stickball being waged over the arsons. She only knows her church will soon be raised, and becomes emotional once more talking about it. "Sometimes I cry when I think how much people have come together," Holmes concludes. "You can't blame everbody for what one person did. You can't brand all (whites) as burners. "You can only go on from here."
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