June 19, 1996 in Nation/World

Coalition Pledges Help For Churches Offer To Help Congregations Hit By Arson Greeted With Appreciation, Skepticism

Eric Harrison Los Angeles Times
 

In a professed spirit of “repentance” for the past sins of white Southern Christianity, Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed Jr. called Tuesday for a day of national racial reconciliation and pledged that his organization would raise at least $1 million to help rebuild black churches that have been burned.

The announcement came amid an outpouring of assistance from religious organizations around the United States that are helping rebuild the almost 40 black churches that have been destroyed or damaged by fire in the South in the last 18 months.

It also came a day after two more black churches were burned in rural northeastern Mississippi.

During a meeting Tuesday with black ministers and representatives of groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the AntiDefamation League, Reed called the arsons “the greatest outbreak of violence against the black church since the height of the civil rights movement.”

He said the racial motivation behind them is “obvious.” His organization, he said, is getting involved “to make it clear that whites will stand shoulder to shoulder with their black brothers and sisters … to see that this bigotry will not prevail.”

Reed’s overture was warmly received by most of the pastors. His speech brought tears to the eyes of at least one minister, the Rev. Brenda Stevenson of Charlotte, N.C., whose New Outreach Christian Center was burned in February 1995. She proclaimed his comments “a message of love” and, to a chorus of amens, said, “I’ve got a feeling everything’s going to be all right.”

But the involvement of the Christian Coalition, perhaps the most powerful political force on the religious right, was greeted with skepticism by others. “The root of the problem is racism, not the burning of churches,” said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Nelson Rivers, southeast regional director of the NAACP, said blacks need to be wary of “Trojan Horses.” “We have to really look at this horse, get inside and see what’s in it,” he said.

At the meeting Tuesday, Rivers asked Reed how far the Christian Coalition is willing to go in a spirit of reconciliation to combat racism. “Is there a limit?”

“There is no limit,” Reed responded. “I’m willing to do whatever the holy spirit and the will of God wants me to do.”

In a moving and eloquent speech in a small meeting room at an Atlanta hotel, Reed promised to throw the full weight of his organization behind stopping the arsons and assisting grieving congregations.

July 14 would be “Racial Reconciliation Sunday” at the 100,000 churches on the coalition’s mailing list, Reed said. He would ask each of them to take up a special collection to help rebuild the burned churches.

Federal officials pointed Tuesday to the discovery of an “incendiary device” at the all-white Kossuth Church of Christ in Kossuth, Miss., located less than five miles from each of the two black churches that burned Monday night.

Rivers, the NAACP official, said statistically there are many more white churches in America than black ones and said the concentration of black church burnings indicated that black places of worship are being targeted.

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