Many of us who were around at the time recall church burnings as all-too frequent occurrences in the civil rights movement. The KKK and other white supremacist groups targeted African American church communities. In the mid 1990’s a rash of arson fires in African American churches led to a federal investigation and the development of an ecumenical “Burned Church” movement to restore facilities and communities. From across the country, work teams were linked with congregations who were prepared to rebuild.
I was serving at the Northridge United Methodist Church at the time. I informed my congregation that I intended to go, but needed a couple of partners to join me. Over the next 9 of 10 years this team spent a week rebuilding churches (in Georgia, Mississippi, S. Carolina, Alabama and even Massachusetts – that’s another story). I discovered that our mission included not only repairing a facility, but seeking to restore community and hope. There came a season when the applications for work teams declined, and we hoped that this expression of animosity and violence had ended.
And now, in the wake of the murders at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, over a dozen African American churches have been burned, 3 confirmed as arson cases. Pastors in our Annual Conference have already begun to explore possible responses, including revitalizing the Burned Church network. What shape it will take is yet to be seen (work teams, financial assistance, partnerships with sister churches, renewed connections with our AME cousins…) And when it does, I would invite partners who feel called to some form of action, to join in this next quest to bring healing and hope.