Volunteers cross the South to rebuild burned churches Helpers of many faiths, and regions get to work

July 14, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

BOLIGEE, Ala. -- Mud wasps whirled at his feet, but Henry Smith, the Scriptures on his knee, lingered in the shade on the bTC hilltop and recalled the January night when the church that baptized him crumbled to the ground in flames.

"I came to the foot of the hill," said Smith. "It was all afire. I stood a little while. Then I left. I still don't know what happened. I'll let the Lord handle it. God sees all that men try to hide."

A few days earlier, on that same ground, Smith listened to hammers, saws and the voices of volunteers from all over the world as they helped rebuild Little Zion Baptist Church, overlooking the catfish ponds and soybean fields of Greene County.

Hundreds of volunteers have fanned out across the South in recent weeks to raise new churches for black congregations whose sanctuaries were destroyed in a rash of 40 arsons.

The volunteers are amateur carpenters, bricklayers and drywall hangers. They are Mennonite, Quaker and Unitarian. Dozens are from South Dakota, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Tomorrow, the crew working in Greene County, Ala., where three black churches were burned in December and January, will be joined by a contingent of 16 Quakers from the Philadelphia area who are driving down over the weekend.

Much of the attention so far has gone to Alabama, but efforts will widen as crews are formed by Habitat for Humanity and the National Council of Churches, which has received $7 million in donations and pledges. Other groups are sending Bibles, pews and furniture. One organization, Christmas in April, has turned away callers as more than 198 volunteers have come to Greene County.

For many volunteers, this is their first trip to the South, and they are struggling to understand a region steeped in racial division.

In Greene County, a withered cotton community that now relies on welfare and catfish breeding, the poverty rate for whites is 7.6 percent; for blacks it is 54.7 percent. Blacks and whites have separate churches, banks, swimming pools and graveyards. White students attend the private Warrior Academy; blacks are educated in one of the worst public school systems in the state. And many live in old sharecropper shacks with no running water.

Many blacks are more bewildered than angry over the arsons.

Smith said, "People ask me about hate. Hate will always be here until Jesus comes to separate the wheat from the chaff. But it was a good feeling for me to see all these people coming from all over to rebuild this little church -- especially whites. After you've been treated badly for so long, sometimes you don't know how to act when you're treated right. I always say, 'Love ain't what it says; it's what it does.' "

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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