Congregations meet to discuss church fires About a dozen groups represented

June 28, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

After some soul-searching, Howard County clergy concerned about the string of arson fires at black churches in the rural South have concluded that the county's religious community is not as unified as they would like it to be.

That consensus emerged after a meeting yesterday at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in west Columbia, where congregations shared their efforts to help the burned churches and got assurances of security assistance from county police Chief James N. Robey.

"If the religious community can't come together intentionally then the wider community will be inhibited in coming together in intentional ways," warned the moderator, the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Wilde Lake.

According to the U.S. Justice Department, about 30 black churches have been burned in arson fires during the past 18 months, primarily in the rural South, and the number continues to grow. Yesterday's meeting was sponsored by the African American Coalition of Howard County and drew an interdenominational group of 38, representing at least a dozen local congregations.

Those who attended learned of local efforts on behalf of the destroyed churches, including fund-raising and volunteers' being sent to help those churches rebuild.

But Turner and others said the meeting helped to illustrate the fact that there is no unified effort among the more than 200 congregations in Howard County to deal with problems when they arise.

Frankie Thomas, a member at the 125-member St. Stephens AME Church in Elkridge, said the lack of religious and racial unity undermines two of the principles on which Columbia was founded.

"If the Christian community doesn't come together we're in trouble," she said.

To which Turner quickly added, "The faith community."

Turner suggested that those present form an interdenominational clergy group.

A planning committee will study that idea, and another committee will plan a community-wide fund-raiser for the burned churches.

Among the examples of congregations of different races working together are Beth Shalom Congregation and Locust United Methodist Church, neighbors in Simpsonville.

Because of the church burnings, Rabbi Kenneth Cohen of Beth Shalom said he and the Locust United minister, the Rev. Victor Sawyer, have agreed to be the "eyes and ears" of each other's buildings.

Chief Robey said that was a good idea.

"We can't shut our eyes and say it can't happen here," Robey said, citing the racial incident in Laurel this spring in which a black family's home was broken into and defaced with racial epithets.

The last black church in Howard County to be burned was the First Baptist Church in Elkridge, which was set afire on Labor Day 1965.

The most recent attack on a black church was Aug. 19, 1991, when two juveniles and one adult were arrested for breaking into the Simpson United Methodist Church in Mount Airy, police said.

Robey told the group that the police have taken steps to prevent such incidents, including:

Bi-weekly "security surveys" of churches that request the checks on lighting and alarm systems.

Formation of a volunteer church-watch group if police receive "intelligence" that a county church will be burned.

Yesterday's meeting drew a positive response from many of those who attended.

"We always say that it takes tragedies to bring people together. Why can't we do it without tragedies?" said George Martin, chairman of Howard County Clergy for Social Justice.

Pub Date: 6/28/96

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