For Methodists and Baptists, help trumps rivalry

In Alabama, a Methodist-affiliated college has set up a charity fund for the Baptist churches that were torched in early February.

Emmy Corey, a sophomore at the Birmingham-Southern College, knows two of three students who confessed in March to torching nine Alabama Baptist churches. They went to the Methodist-affiliated college of 1,500 students with her in Birmingham, Ala.

Ms. Corey recently went to Rehobeth Church in Lawley, which was destroyed by the fires, to offer her help and prayer. Before the trip, though, Corey worried about how church members would receive her, but she found there was no need. They welcomed her with open arms, she says.

"I think [these fires] remind us that we are connected to that Baptist church, now more than ever before."

A religion major, she attends the BSC campus's Methodist church, and says she plans to continue volunteering as the Baptist church rebuilds.

Corey traveled as part of 10 teams of nearly 50 students and staff, who BSC president, David Pollick, tapped to reach out to the affected churches. The school has also started a charity fund, and is considering offering scholarships for teenagers who belong to the churches.

BSC is "going beyond their means to rectify a bad situation," says Walter Hawkins Jr., the pastor of the burned Dancey First Baptist Church in Aliceville, Ala. "What they're doing shows love not just for a Baptist, but for all people that they are reaching out to help."

In the process, the quiet pilgrimages into the rolling countryside are smoothing over the turbulent history between the Methodists and the Baptists in Alabama, which theology professor Russell Richey describes as a "part of spirited frontier warfare for souls." During the 19th century, they debated each other using pulpits and church circulars on many facets of theology, including whether a true baptism requires a soak or a sprinkle.

"What these kids [the arsonists] have done goes much deeper than they possibly knew," says Bob Sigler, a criminology professor at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. "Everyone feels a sense of guilt about it."

The three college students - Russell Debusk, Ben Moseley, and Matthew Cloyd (who attended the University of Alabama-Birmingham) - turned a nighttime hunting trip into an arson spree in early February. They since admitted to torching nine of the 10 churches - some black, some white, all Baptist. Six churches were destroyed.

When the men were finally apprehended after a month-long manhunt, many Alabamians were relieved that it was neither racially motivated like the fires in the mid-1990s nor a result of the historic tensions between the two denominations.

Now, for one Baptist church member - Deacon Harold Cantrell, a pious truck driver with a baritone drawl - it's hope, not anger or suspicion, that tugs at his heart, he says, even though where his church once stood, there is now only a concrete slab. Beaverton Free Will Baptist - "the white church on the hill" - burned Feb. 9.

When pilgrims from the college came calling on a recent Sunday, Mr. Cantrell welcomed them as brothers and sisters. Together, they listened to Pastor Dwight Bailey's sizzling sermon. Together, they held their palms up and prayed.

"I think the people at [BSC] feel some guilt over this, but there's no need: We're all God's people down here," says Mr. Cantrell.

As members look toward rebuilding, they wait for official estimates for the churches' damages. In the meantime, Alfa Insurance Co., which insured five of the churches, says the damage for all 10 churches is roughly "in the low millions," with each church averaging about $100,000.

Those preliminary figures suggest that at least three of the churches could be rebuilt with more than $300,000 that BSC's charity fund has raised so far. Other BSC efforts to help the churches include: A charity concert in Tuscaloosa this month that will feature the BSC Choral Choir. David Lee, the 2004 World Champion Elvis Impersonator, is coming to Anniston June 24 to raise money for the BSC charity fund. BSC is also considering awarding scholarships to teenagers in the church at the request of Spring Valley Baptist in Gainesville.

"These relationships are something we hope will carry over indefinitely," says Linda Hallmark, a BSC spokeswoman.

To be sure, some critics, including Paul Finebaum, a radio talk-show host in Birmingham, have wondered if college officials would have given as much if its students weren't involved.

Whether the students who set the fires knew how their actions would reflect on their school is dubious, and questions remain about why they targeted Baptist churches. Their trial begins June 5.

"It's doubtful that these kids were reacting to those squabbles, but my hunch is that it was more they were inhibited to pick on their own denomination than they were motivated to attack the Baptists," says Dr. Richey, dean of the Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.

For BSC police chief Randy Youngblood, who heard the young men confess to the arsons, the journey to Beaverton on a recent Sunday was heartfelt - and necessary. "We are sorry for what happened," he told the congregation. "We're here to see what we can do to help."

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