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The refining fires

National | Christian Coalition hopes reconciliation rises from the ashes

Issue: "Arkansas' Mister Clean," July 6, 1996

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.

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"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.

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