Fire gutted a racially mixed church in this remote prairie town Thursday morning, the latest in a string of suspicious blazes that have charred the sanctuaries of more than 30 black congregations across the South.
Federal investigators, who spent most of the day sifting through the remains of Enid’s First Missionary Baptist Church, declined to comment on the cause of the fire or characterize it as the work of an arsonist. But church elders said that firefighters, shortly after dousing the predawn inferno, told them there was evidence that an accelerant apparently spread the flames near a bathroom window that bore signs of a forced entry.
“This has been a blow to us, but we hold no ill feeling, we seek no revenge,” said the Rev. Alfred Baldwin, pastor of the 200-member congregation, which is predominantly black but includes whites, Latinos and American Indians. “It’s like a farmer who burns off his field - the crop that comes up next year is even greener and stronger.”
The fire, the 36th suspicious church blaze being investigated by the Justice Department, drew a swift response from Washington. President Clinton invited the governors from every state where black churches have been burned to come to the White House in the next two weeks and help devise a joint federal-state strategy to stop the fires.
“It is the cruelest of all ironies that an expression of bigotry in America that would sweep this country is one that involves trashing religious liberty,” the president said.
On Capitol Hill, House lawmakers passed a resolution Thursday in which they condemned “in the strongest possible words” the string of “hate crimes.”
“We are not Republicans or Democrats on this matter. We are not black or white on this matter,” said Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla. “If you burned a church in Enid, Okla., you are burning every church in America.”
Meanwhile, top Justice Department officials met in Washington with local law enforcement officers from the affected states. They were seeking new ways to investigate the fires without angering some church leaders who have complained that FBI agents and other detectives have been “insensitive” in their lines of questioning.
“This is something that requires and will receive a special kind of attention,” Associate Attorney General John Schmidt said. He added that he did not find it reassuring that no nationwide conspiracy has been identified thus far.
“If instead what you have is a situation where people in various places sort of on their own seem to be motivated by such a degree of racial animosity or anger that they burn churches, I think that’s a very disturbing thing,” Schmidt said.