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Churches Rebuild After Burnings


By Elizabeth Levitan SpaidStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 17, 1996


On a country road in western Alabama, Henry Carter stands in front of the site where generations of his family attended Sunday services and chokes up. The red-brick church - Little Zion Baptist - burned to the ground last January. Though it has taken an emotional toll on Mr. Carter, what touches him now are the donations and letters that are coming in from around the world.

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"One lady wrote and said, 'I heard about your situation, and it just worries me. I have only $100, but use it in the Lord's name,' " Carter says. "When I read that, it just penetrated right through me."

Little Zion was one of three black churches torched last winter in Boligee, a town of 300 in Alabama's rural "black belt" - named for its rich soil. While much of the nation's attention has focused on the church burnings themselves, blacks and whites of all faiths have quietly been coming together to rebuild these charred sanctuaries. Volunteers from as far away as Canada are making the pilgrimage to communities across the South to wield hammers and saws, and thousands of dollars in donations and reward money have been raised.

For many townspeople, the rebuilding represents as much a spiritual process of renewal as a physical one. It also sends, intended or not, an indelible message: That the communities won't be bowed by the apparent racist motives behind the burnings.

Amid the ashes

The rebuilding effort is in high gear in Boligee, where the sound of hammers, drills, and workers punctuate the stillness of a steamy June afternoon.

Here at Little Zion Baptist Church, which has about 65 members, parishioners and a handful of Quakers from Washington, D.C., are constructing a new church on top of the ashes of the old site. A wooden frame and roof are already up, and members plan to have it ready for services in late August.

Several miles away, along desolate roads lined with Queen Anne's lace, a group of Mennonites from Canada and the Midwest have set up mobile homes and a work site where Mount Zoar Baptist Church once stood. The workers are part of the Mennonite Disaster Service. They will work through the summer. So far, they've poured a concrete foundation. Work is also about to begin nearby on the third church - Mount Zion Baptist Church.

The fires, like many others at churches across the South, happened in the darkness of night. At Little Zion, a man saw orange flames piercing the black sky as he was heading home, says the Rev. Woodson Lewis, who has been pastor here since 1950. "Nobody was up here, no one knew about it" until it was too late, Mr. Lewis says.

Authorities have no suspects in any of the three fires, two of which occurred on the same day. Both black and white residents remain puzzled as well. Race relations are harmonious, many say. And there is no sign of any hate groups. In fact, Greene County where Boligee is located, experienced little of the racial turmoil that seethed close by in parts of Alabama and neighboring Mississippi during the civil-rights era. The Ku Klux Klan was not active, there were few protests or beatings of blacks, and no churches were burned.