On Saturday evening, December 30, 1995, Dan Donaldson got the news that the church where he grew up and had served as pastor for 14 years was in flames. "It was hard to believe," Donaldson says. "Even at that point I couldn't imagine that the entire church was destroyed."
The following morning when the almost 125-year-old congregation of Salem Baptist Church in Fruitland, Tennessee, would have been gathering to worship, they were instead facing the devastating reality that their church was gone. The authorities determined it was arson.
"Just to lose the church was bad enough," says Donaldson, "then to find out someone deliberately wanted to destroy it. We still don't understand why."
But Donaldson did not give in to speculation, nor did he let his congregation dwell on the situation. As they stood under a large shade tree and looked at the ashes, the Lord reminded Donaldson that the building that had been destroyed by hate was not the church. The church was the body of believers surrounding him.
"We'd been knocked down, but we had to get up. If we stayed down, we might get comfortable," he said.
The congregation immediately began making plans to rebuild. They were plans of faith. With an insurance settlement that would cover less than half the cost of the new building, the people of Salem Baptist Church had no choice but to trust God to supply the rest. And He has.
The response of individuals and churches has been overwhelming. Bellevue Baptist Church of Memphis has been among the many who have reached out with compassion to help these brothers and sisters in Christ. During the morning worship services on Sunday, July 14, Pastor Adrian Rogers asked the members of Bellevue to give a special offering to be designated for churches which had been the victims of arson. He noted, "Love can build more churches than hate could ever burn."
The Bellevue church family responded generously and sacrificially as more than $50,000 was received. More than three times the original goal of $15,000, this money was sent to the Southern Baptist Convention which distributed a large portion of it to the Tennessee Baptist Convention. The Tennessee Baptist Convention then presented a check of $5,000 to Salem Baptist Church to help with rebuilding.
James Kinsey, pastor of Sunswept Baptist Church in nearby Union City, Tennessee, and Mississippi River Ministries Coordinator for the Beulah Baptist Association has coordinated the volunteers and the finances to rebuild Salem.
"The money that Bellevue and a few other churches sent was the first money we received," Kinsey states, "it was desperately needed to buy materials."
The Lord has turned tragedy to triumph as He has begun to rebuild His house. "It's been unreal," said Glenn Waldon, a member of Salem for 14 years. "People talk about and read about the glory of God and how He manifests Himself. We've watched it all summer."
When the church was targeted for a visit from the President and First Lady and the Vice-president and his wife in August, they used the opportunity to tell the world of God's goodness and faithfulness. "We were able to share through his (Clinton's) media what God has done. We could not have done it at that level without him being here," Waldon said.
For whatever reason, hate led someone to destroy a building that was very important in the lives of the members of Salem Baptist Church. But the Lord through His people has enabled them to build another house of worship, and they give the glory to God.
"The work is going great. In November, we should be able to go back home," the smiling pastor states, "I can't think of a better time to go into our new building than at a time of Thanksgiving."
"Like Being Slapped in the Face"
A first-person report
It hits home when it hits home. At 6:30 one morning recently, our phone rang. In answer to my sleepy "Hello," a friend in Alcorn County, Miss., said, "Two black churches burned here last night."
Early investigations revealed the fires were almost surely set intentionally, with the destroyed buildings lying only four miles apart and the blazes reported within 17 minutes of each other.
Hanging up the phone, I sat on my bed, feeling I'd been slapped in the face. Although I'm not now on the scene, I lived in Alcorn County most of my life before moving to Indiana two summers ago. Hearing someone had set fire to two houses of worship in my neck of north Mississippi was like hearing that someone had broken into my house. No, I can't share the grief, the outrage, the sense of violation the members of Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist and Central Grove Baptist Churches must feel. But I am stung by the two key aspects of these crimes.
First, the victims were black. News reports shout that more than 30 fires still under investigation have gutted black churches across the South in the last year and a half. All these apparent arsons serve to worsen the race relations stigma already attached to us southerners.
People who haven't been there believe small-town Mississippi to be what they've seen in TV shows and movies — a haven for bigots run by three or four heavyweights who hold every elected office in town and use their power to snuff out blacks and anyone else who gets in their way.
I know better. Yes, prejudice has deep roots among us. Yes, we still have a long way to go before blacks and whites are embracing one another without reserve. But, with few exceptions, we're a far cry from what the media paints us.
I was in elementary school the one time I said the "n" word. As it happened, I said the word in front of my father. Daddy was not normally the family disciplinarian. Many times, Mama got frustrated because she was trying to correct us children about something, and Daddy was bent double laughing about what we'd done.
But Daddy didn't laugh that day. As angry as I've ever seen him, he exploded, "Don't you ever say that word again! Don't you ever say any word that puts down people of another race!"
I never did. The force of my daddy's words blasted almost every shred of racial prejudice right out of me. Yet today, my father and I and all southerners are lumped with those few who torch churches to express racial hatred, to create racial tension, or both.
Second — and somehow generally forgotten — the victims were churches. In the last 18 months, not only have black churches burned, so have an almost equal number of white churches.
Meanwhile, the media fails to point out that every intentionally-set church fire is an attack against Christians.
In fact, like some rape victims, Christians have been told, "It's probably your fault, anyway."
One pastor (yes, I said pastor) quoted in the June 18 issue of USA Today said, "There's only a slippery slope between conservative religious persons and these that are actually doing the burning."
That amounts to double-barreled persecution. Yet Central Grove's pastor, Perry Carroll, was right when he said, "No matter what they do to the building, the churches that were established in Jesus' name will always stand." And no matter what they say, I might add, the true church — made up of blacks and whites and every other race — will stand.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus put it this way: "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Deborah P. Brunt is a freelance writer in Yorktown, Indiana.
What Can I Do? How Can I Do It?
From small, open country churches to large city and suburban congregations, Southern Baptists over the country have linked their arms in the effort to assist churches stricken by arson. As of September 4, 1996, more than $471,000 has been distributed for the purpose.
Saddleback Community Church of Mission Viejo, California, recently gave over $71,000 in a single day for the cause.
President Jim Williams of the Brotherhood Commission estimates that in-kind gifts of $5 million to $7 million will have also been given by Southern Baptists to these projects.
Those who want to assist churches victimized by arson have something they can do, and good ways to do it through channels already open.
All can PRAY. We have the opportunity to lay everything before a caring Father. Whatever else we do, it ought to be initiated, bathed, and performed in prayer.
Most can GIVE. Southern Baptist churches are encouraged to send their gifts through the regular channel with their state convention. Designated gifts should be marked "Arson Fund" when sent to the state convention office.
Many can VOLUNTEER. Those wishing to be part of volunteer construction crews are encouraged to contact the Brotherhood Commission at 1-800-280-1891. Their address is 1548 Poplar Avenue, Memphis TN, 38104.
Susan Word is managing editor of publications at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, TN.