President Clinton left the glitter of Manhattan on Monday for the corn and cotton fields of west Tennessee, where he spent part of his 50th birthday hammering nails and waxing philosophical on the rebuilding of two local churches that burned to the ground within the past two years.
One church had mostly white parishioners, the other’s congregation was mostly black, and the two helped rebuild each other’s churches in a spirit of cooperation that Clinton said could serve as a model for the rest of the world.
“You’re not just rebuilding your church here, you’re showing America what’s special about America,” Clinton said to a cheering crowd gathered on the grounds of the partially built Salem Missionary Baptist Church, just 65 members in size.
“And by doing that, you’re leading us into a brighter and better future instead of back into the kind of dark path that has divided and torn asunder so many other nations and that in times past has made America less than it ought to be,” Clinton said.
The visit to this community of 200 residents, which Clinton made in a pair of worn jeans and a navy golf shirt, contrasted sharply with the day before, when he attended a series of receptions, parties and dinners in New York, partly to celebrate his birthday and partly to raise money for the Democratic Party. Monday, Clinton - accompanied by his wife, Hillary, daughter Chelsea, Vice President Al Gore, Tipper Gore and three of their four children - gathered up paintbrushes and power screwdrivers and worked inside the partially completed church after the throngs of spectators had gone.
“You’re going to work until you sweat,” Rev. Daniel Donaldson of the Salem Missionary Baptist Church told Clinton before the work began.
Clinton also used the occasion, as he has several times since the Republican Convention in San Diego last week, to urge that the presidential campaign not dissolve into a slinging match of innuendo and insults.
“I said the other day that I hoped that we could get out of the point in our politics where we trade in insults and go back to fighting over ideas, when we realize that not every election is a race between a saint and a scoundrel” Clinton said.
The tale of the two churches here is a tale of unity, according to Clinton and others. Located just 3 miles from each other on rural roads that wind through rich farmland, there had been little contact between the two congregations, until the New Shiloh United Methodist Church on the border of neighboring Humboldt was destroyed by fire on the morning of Dec. 12, 1994. That fire, though controversial at the time, was determined by local investigators to be an accident.
After the fire, the mostly black Salem Missionary church was the first group to step forward with offers of help, and New Shiloh, with a new white steeple, is nearly complete and is expected to open for services next month.
Meanwhile, Salem Missionary Baptist Church, founded in 1872 as a clearing in the woods where the poor gathered to pray, burned down on Dec. 30, 1995, in a fire that has been determined to be arson. New Shiloh’s congregation reciprocated the help, and the church here is expected to be completed by later in the fall.
To be sure, Clinton’s visit - the first by a sitting president to Gibson County - was a widely heralded affair. The Jackson Sun, the local newspaper, offered a banner headline Monday morning that said: “Welcome Mr. President.” The roads around Salem Missionary, surrounded by farm fields and pastures, were blocked for miles, with visitors bused to the sight.