Funds being raised to aid churches hit by arson Area clergy and police meeting to make sure arson is avoided here

June 20, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

Howard County churches are raising money to assist black churches destroyed by arson in the rural South, while local black ministers plan to meet with area clergy and police to make sure there are no such burnings here.

"It's not enough just for us to be fearful -- it's also not enough for us to be prayerful," said the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, pastor at the 350-member St. John Baptist Church, which meets at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in west Columbia.

His church -- along with Locust United Methodist Church in Simpsonville and Long Reach Church of God in Columbia -- plan special Sunday collections and other fund-raising efforts starting as early as this Sunday.

Meeting June 27

In addition, Turner said the 20 pastors in the African-American Coalition of Howard County plan to meet with white and black clergy and the Howard County Police Department on June 27 "so that we can brainstorm on how we can be more pro-active in Howard County."

The public meeting will be held 2 p.m. at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.

George Martin, chairman of Howard County Clergy for Social Justice, which includes some black church leaders, said a number of the group's 15 ministers and rabbis are seeking money from their congregations to help rebuild the burned churches.

Among those raising money are St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, Columbia Jewish Congregation and Baha'is of Howard County, all of which meet at interfaith centers in Columbia.

'Outrageous'

"It seems like an outrageous type of thing," Martin said of the church fires.

Sgt. Steve Keller, a county police spokesman, said that the Police Department certainly would be open to a discussion with the clergy about ways to prevent burnings at local churches.

"We have instituted some actions internally -- specifics of which we obviously do not want to discuss," said Keller.

Although there have been no church burnings in Howard County, about 30 black churches have been burned in arson fires in the rural South over the past 18 months, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

Investigation under way

Last week, federal authorities started investigating nearly two dozen fires at predominantly white churches.

The burnings in the South come at a time when sensitivity to racial issues is high in Howard County, in the wake of an April hate crime in North Laurel, where a black family's home was broken into, defaced and vandalized.

"I do think this could happen here," the Rev. Robert Stanley Davis, Sr., pastor at Long Reach Church of God, said of the burnings in the South. "You've still got bigots who are in the closet."

But local churches vow not to remain passive.

On June 30, for example, Turner's congregation will begin an effort aimed at raising several thousand dollars to help rebuild the destroyed churches.

He said his church's contributions would be forwarded either to the Progressive National Baptist Convention in Washington, D.C., or to Riverside Church in Manhattan, which are helping to coordinate assistance.

Prayer vigil

On July 3, St. John Baptist Church is planning a prayer vigil to highlight the issue.

"We'll be praying for the pastors and congregations and communities that have been affected, and we'll also be praying for those who caused the acts because they need help," said Turner.

Davis, the Long Reach Church of God pastor, said his 1,500-member congregation will have collections within the next two months to raise money for the same purpose in a joint campaign with other congregations. Though he hasn't talked about this issue from the pulpit, Davis said members of his congregation have formed groups to talk about the burnings.

'A sad day'

The Rev. Victor Sawyer, whose church, Locust United Methodist, is the oldest black church in Howard County, said the church burnings in the South are "a sad day in the life of our country" and are reminiscent of the 1960s, when black churches were burned and bombed.

Sawyer said his 200-member congregation will take a special collection this Sunday or the following one.

"We want to show support for those congregations and let them know we do care," said Sawyer. "We want to let them know they aren't alone and the Christian community hasn't forgotten about them."

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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