Over the years, a Carroll County-based ministry has battled the destruction of hurricanes, earthquakes and floods. Now its volunteers will tackle a man-made calamity: a South Carolina church gutted by arson.
Members of the local Disaster Response Program, a Church of the Brethren project, came from across the nation to attend a three-day conference in New Windsor. The 82 volunteers made plans to rebuild the Butler Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church on the outskirts of Orangeburg, a small town south of Columbia, the state capital.
"None of us is immune in our churches from vandalism and violence," Lydia Walker, disaster program coordinator for training and outreach at the Brethren Service Center, said at the final conference session yesterday. "We must respond as rebuilders."
The effort responds to a call from the National Council of Churches to stem the violence aimed at black churches, the fiber holding many African-American communities together.
Butler Chapel was one of 85 African-American congregations -- 32 in South Carolina alone -- to lose its church to arson since 1990, according to the council.
"Our essential focus is to get that church building up," said Joseph M. Mason, interim director of the Disaster Response Program. "Peacemaking filters out of that primary focus. Our style as Brethren is to let our works speak for themselves."
Among those who addressed the conference was the Rev. Patrick B. Mellerson, pastor of Butler Chapel. After months of complaining about vandalism to indifferent local police, Mellerson found himself standing before the glowing embers of his century-old church on the evening of March 31.
"Such an evil deed hurt more than anything," Mellerson said. "It was like a death in my family."
Three months later, Mellerson joined a group of African-American pastors who demanded action from federal officials in Washington.
"Strom Thurmond, our senator, told us there were 280 agents working on the burnings," Mellerson said. "I told him there was not one agent in Orangeburg."
A week after Mellerson returned home, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Fire Arms began its probe into the Orangeburg arson. Only then did local police investigate the burning and local news media pay attention.
"I am more angry with investigators and the media, than with the children who did this to our church," said Mellerson. "We should have gotten justice immediately."
For the seven juveniles now charged with arson, Mellerson recommends reconciliation.
"For one year, every time our church door opens, I would want those kids sitting in the front pew," he said. "We teach love. We would welcome them. They would find God somewhere in our church."
The congregation has purchased another property near its original site and is planning an 8,500-square-foot brick building. The new lot has highway frontage, making the church more visible than it was along a sandy road.
The pastor expects a building permit next week and crews will pour the foundation next month. Then the volunteers will take over.
Jiggs Miller, a Michigan resident and a longtime disaster response project coordinator, will be on site in April. Without the donations of labor and materials, much of which was secured through the National Council of Churches, Miller estimated the project would cost about $800,000.
Ideally, the new building could be ready within six months, but Miller expects it will be closer to a year.
Every week, a new team of about 20 volunteers, many of them retirees, will arrive from different areas of the country to work with the coordinator, who will stay with the project for about a month. Miller expects to return as a volunteer laborer late in the building process.
Making sure enough volunteers are sent to South Carolina falls to Glenn Kinsel, working from New Windsor. He faces a monumental task with "a shining invitation to do something significant," he said.
Kinsel, a retired minister, recently returned from a visit to Orangeburg, where he stayed with Mellerson.
"This is a small church with so many underprivileged that all they can do is hold body and soul together," Kinsel said. "They don't have time for volunteerism."
Torin Eikenberry, a recent college graduate who has joined the Brethren Volunteer Service, will be in South Carolina at least through July, conducting orientations with each new group of volunteers.
"I will be a buffer, a translator and maybe help people understand each other," Eikenberry said. "We are not there to just work on a project, but to work on the issues of racism and to develop understanding."
Without the volunteer effort, the congregation probably could not rebuild its church, the pastor said. "This will show the community here that there are people across the United States who don't care about color or creed and are concerned with the burnings," Mellerson said. "We never thought a denomination that does not even know us would help us out."
Pub Date: 2/18/97