BLACK CHURCH CELEBRATES REBUILDING AT CHRISTMAS

* The 50 members of Springhill Freewill Baptist Church will spend Christmas celebrating the rebirth of their church.

It was one of two churches set on fire one night last April by three white teenage arsonists who targeted the all-black congregations.

When apologies and prison sentences for the arsonists weren't enough to heal the pain of that fiery night in rural southwest Mississippi, whites picked up hammers and began building. More than 130 volunteers, mostly white, began construction this month.

``They figure that they owe us something, but a lot of those people don't owe us anything. They're just loving Christians,'' said Rosie Young, financial secretary of Springhill, a small congregation that meets twice a month. ``They're trying to help us get back before we scatter apart,'' she said. ``It's a big old Christmas present.''

Church members planned to spend the holidays worshiping in a small temporary sanctuary. They had spent $12,000 on renovations this spring, days before the chapel was burned down on April 4, the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

A group of businessmen stepped in. A bank supplied meeting space until the rebuilding, financed by donations, is complete early next year.

``We were in this run-down place with no heat, no lights, no nothing. Now we've got a warm place for Christmas,'' Ms. Young said.

The arson fires, occurring 20 years after nightriders' unsuccessful 1964 efforts to firebomb the sanctuary, resulted in prison sentences this month for the three white teens.

``We just couldn't imagine that we had anybody still living here that was that mean. We thought that we had lived through that time,'' Young said.

Some church members complain that sentences were too lenient, but say they're finding peace in the building efforts at both churches.

Summit banker Frank Martin said volunteers hope to raise $50,000 and do all the work themselves ``to send a positive message out of something that should never have happened.''

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