A pair of insurance investigators were finishing up at the New Life House of Prayer in Greenville, Texas, when Doug Henry arrived. The 31-year-old deacon said he just came by to see that the men had what they needed.
Mr. Henry appeared tired; he'd been up 36 hours straight, he said, since he was called and told the church was on fire. He walked through the sanctuary with the investigators as they took in the damage one more time.
The acrid smoke in the church, one of more than 40 black churches that have burned throughout the nation since January 1995, was still oppressive. Mr. Henry absently ran a finger along the arm of a wooden pew as he passed, then looked at the soot he'd collected. He looked at the clock on the wall at the back of the sanctuary; though the wall was blackened and buckled by heat, the clock was still running.
"We'll see some accelerant here, I think," said one investigator, pointing to the charred skeleton of a stud wall at the rear of the old wooden structure. "Someone probably threw gasoline at the wall, then a match."
Mr. Henry nodded. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had told him the same thing the day before. The insurance investigators, clad in open-collared shirts, asked Mr. Henry about crime in the area. They asked if rumors about drug use behind the church were true. "There's some," he told them. "It's way off the road, it's lighted, you can't be seen. It's a good place to hide."
They asked if the church had experienced break-ins; Mr. Henry confirmed that as well. "By the way," said one of the investigators as he removed a pair of latex gloves and tossed them into the truck of his rental car, "Some guy drove by in a pickup, said his church had a PA system they wanted to give y'all. ...He was white. We told him to come by later, or try you at home."
Mr. Henry smiled, "He called me at home. There's a lot of people promising to help out."
But this Greenville church has had other promises, of a different nature. The day before, about 30 members of the New Black Panther Party and the Nation of Islam arrived with shotguns and assault rifles to tour the New Life church, as well as the nearby Church of the Living God, which was slightly damaged by fire on the same night.
Khalid Muhammad, a Nation of Islam leader, had told the reporters and church members who had gathered to see the spectacle, "We will not allow rabid, racist Ku Klux Klan, skinheads, Aryan brotherhoods, any of the paramilitary right-wing white organizations to terrorize black churches."
He paused for applause, though it didn't come. "We will stand up all across America," he continued. "We will set up patrols all across the country. You catch a cracker lighting a torch to any black church, or any property of black people, we are to send them to the cemetery."
The day after this incendiary speech, Doug Henry was clearly uncomfortable talking about it. "They have a right to their views," he said of the Panthers. "But I don't think it did any good to talk like that. We have trouble, well, Jesus said we would. For his sake, not just because we're black. Because we're Christians.
"Besides," he added. "Where are they now? It's time to start cleaning up and rebuilding, and they've gone home."
Where will Christians be when the political winds are finished fanning these flames? Those with purely political motives will have gone home. The Christian Coalition, however, says it's here for the duration.
"We are going to be there," says the Rev. Earl Jackson, pastor of New Cornerstone Exodus Church in Boston and the Coalition's national director for community development. "We have a long-term strategy. We have the 1-800 number for people who want to help. We are establishing a strategy of racial reconciliation across the country. I'll appoint local leaders to bring white and black Christians together to worship and to work together on issues beyond the fires."
Mr. Jackson points out that the Christian Coalition has been active on the issue since the beginning of the year. On Feb. 22, in fact, director Ralph Reed signed a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, calling for hearings on the church fires. And on April 22, the Coalition announced a reward of $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of arsonists. Most recently, the group has announced a "Save the Churches Fund," money to be raised during a special collection at participating churches on July 14. The money-they estimate they'll gather $1 million-will be used to help rebuild burned churches.
Some black groups refused to put aside partisanship. "We have to be wary of any Trojan horse," said Nelson Rivers III, the Southeast regional director of the NAACP,"when the issue is used to get into our community to achieve other goals that may not be in our best interests."
Added Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, "If they're serious about reconciliation and getting on the right side of the struggle for racial justice, I would like to see them address the burning issues: the assault on affirmative action, on voting rights, on women's rights, on welfare."
But the strongest rhetoric came from the Rev. C.T. Vivian of the Center for Democratic Renewal, an Atlanta group that claims to monitor hate crimes: "It's not just those who strike the match. The far right is really the problem that we really face here. There's only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and these that are actually doing the burning." The Christian Coalition's Mr. Jackson, a black pastor, says he was offended by such statements. "I don't need the job. I've been a pastor for 20 years. While white evangelical churches in the past turned a deaf ear and blind eye to the oppression of its black brothers and sisters. But that day is over. We're working to reconcile now."
And the Rev. James Freeman of the Sweet Home Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., which was burned in February, told The Washington Post, "To be honest, the Christian Coalition has stepped up in places where our people haven't. I haven't seen Reverend Lowery offer us any financial help, or prayer, for that matter."
Politics aside, the facts about the church fires show that white churches are burning as well. Arson is actually a fairly common cause when churches suffer fire; they rarely have alarm systems and they're vacant much of the time, according to the National Fire Protection Agency. Each year, about 1,330 fires are reported at places of worship, and more than one-quarter of the fires are deliberately set.
Since January 1995, USA Today reported, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has investigated 59 such fires, 30 at black churches and 29 at white churches. In the last five years, the BATF reports investigating 123 church arsons. So far, there is no evidence of any conspiracy. In fact, more than a third of those 123 fires-44 of them-were set by two individuals, both of whom the BATF describes as "deranged."
And while experts are quick to devise profiles of typical church arsonists-white, male, poor, and uneducated-the actual arrests paint a collage, not a single portrait. In South Carolina, a 13-year-old white girl, apparently with anti-Christian-not anti-black-motives was arrested after one recent fire, and a black former deacon of the Tucker Chapel Baptist Church was arrested for burning it down in 1992. In Charlotte, N.C., two black men were arrested for torching a building attached to a black church there. A Jewish man was arrested for a string of synagogue fires in Florida.
Enid, Okla., is about 300 miles north of Greenville, Texas. Both are small, rural towns with little history of racial enmity, but two days after the churches burned in Greenville, the First Missionary Baptist Church in Enid went up in flames.
Anthony Clardy, 35, was on his way to work before sun-up on the morning the church was destroyed. He says he drove by the small, racially mixed church of which he's a member and saw smoke and flames. Firefighters were just arriving, he said, and as he watched, he prayed that the town north of Oklahoma City wouldn't become a rhetorical battleground. "I just wanted everyone to look to Jesus, not to color," he said. "I don't know who set the fire. It could have been someone from my own race. There's so much hype in the news now, though."
On this Thursday, Mr. Clardy is one of the many who gathered for a prayer rally outside the doors of the overpacked Grayson Baptist Church. He picks up a chorus flowing out of the building: "This joy I have-the world didn't give it to me," he sings. "And the world can't take it away ..."
The tall black man raises only one hand in worship; the other hand is holding an infant carrier full of four-month-old Charles, who is somehow sleeping through the thunder of an approaching rainstorm and the thunderous singing coming from both inside and outside the church. The community has come together around Christ, just as he had prayed it would, and more than 500 Christians of all races and denominations have gathered at a church a block away from the site of the one destroyed by fire just a few hours before. By the time Mr. Clardy got off work and arrived at the service, there was barely room for him and Charles under an eave, 12 feet and 54 people away from the door of the church. A fatigue-clad white soldier from the nearby army base and his Hispanic buddy make room for Anthony and Charles, then continue singing and clapping.
"I think about my son," Mr. Clardy says, his strong right arm showing no fatigue from holding Charles. "I thought about him when I saw part of the roof falling in. I wonder what it's going to be like for him. But I see this many people out, and I know it's going to be okay."
The church will rebuild, and the Church will be stronger for it, he says. "Knowing our pastors, they'll pitch a tent if they need to," he said. "But it won't take long. There'll be lots of help. And that will be good for all of us."