By Jeff Brumley
Baptist and other Christians are reaching out to the victims of the many African-American church fires reported during the past couple of weeks, ministers say.
And it doesn’t matter whether or not arson has been identified as the cause.
“It’s been very distressing to the larger community,” said Fred Andrea, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Aiken, S.C.
The congregation is located about six miles from Warrenville, where Glover Grove Missionary Baptist Church burned down June 26.
Residents felt pain and distress about the fire even after authorities ruled out arson, Andrea said. Fundraising and fellowship continues for the members of the stricken church.
“The response has been for people of faith, across denominational and racial lines, to explore together how we might be helpful to them with financial assistance and hands-on aid,” Andrea said.
Fires in context
He and other Baptist leaders told Baptist News Global that the chronological context of the fires — the aftermath of the June 19 Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston and the subsequent debate over the Confederate flag — is clearly drawing heightened media attention to church burnings in the South.
Stories and video are being published almost daily when an African-American church catches fire — even when the cause is unclear or known not to be arson.
Statistics suggest that church fires are more common than many know.
Fire departments across the nation respond to nearly 1,800 structure fires at churches annually, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Sixteen percent of those were arson fires, the association reported.
‘Symptoms of a deeper problem’
Yet, it is difficult not to see meaning behind the recent fires, even when only some are suspected to have been intentionally set, said David Goatley, executive secretary and treasurer of Lott Carey Foreign Mission Convention.
Whether number of arsons is high or low, the fires are a reminder of racial injustice in general.
“There is such an accumulation now of events, and tragic events, that appear to be related to resurging … racial hatred,” Goatley said.
They also encourage people of all ethnicities and faiths to continue naming and opposing racial injustice and oppression, he said. They must seek an end to the us-versus-them mentality that breeds oppression in society.
Goatley said his conversations with the leaders of African-American denominations, including Baptist ones, reveals a common understanding that church arsons, along with the shootings in Charleston, are just the tip of the iceberg.
“There is a number of us who are saying these are symptoms of a deeper problem,” he said. “I think this is part of the ongoing anxiety of people who have benefitted from privilege, seeing things changing and sensing a kind of desperation.”
And more violence can be expected against people, property and symbols, he added.
‘It has definitely affected us’
The pain from such acts is felt by more than the immediate congregations affected, one pastor said.
On June 24, Briar Creek Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C., was destroyed by fire. Authorities are continuing to investigate the blaze.
Even so, the effect on the congregation and the larger community has been profound as they weigh the meaning of a potential hate crime.
And the impact has been especially strong at Grace Crossing Baptist Fellowship, where several former members of Briar Creek have worshiped for years.
“A lot of them were saying ‘my kids were married in that sanctuary’ and ‘my kids were baptized in that sanctuary,’” said Jason Blanton, pastor of the congregation located about 10 miles from the church that burned down.
“It has definitely affected us,” he said.
Many congregations have been on heightened alert since the Charleston shootings and reports of church burnings, Blanton said. Police have even visited Grace Crossing to check on its security procedures.
A sense of great sadness hangs over the churches and community since Briar Creek burned, he said.
“You try to wrap your head around what would motivate someone to do something like that,” he said. “And the more you wrap your head around that, the more sorrow it brings.”
But Christians will carry on their work while authorities investigate the fires, Andrea said.
“Here is an opportunity, no matter the circumstances, to be brothers and sisters in Christ to the larger community,” Andrea said.