'This problem has gone from a mountain to a molehill," jokes Principal Abraham Kinnard as he inspects how volunteer carpenters are cutting and re-laying the badly buckled wooden floor of Boligee's Paramount High School.
Over the last few weeks, Mr. Kinnard's mountain of problems has diminished, thanks to the efforts of some two-dozen mainly white, young, and Northern volunteers. The gym's hot, humid air is filled with sawdust and the sounds of buzz saws, hammering, shouts, and laughter. Six high school students are perched on scaffolding, painting the walls white with a deep blue baseline.
The work crew is part of a Quaker-run project in Boligee to rebuild Little Zion and Mt. Zion, two of three black Baptist churches destroyed here by arsonists since December. The Mennonites are rebuilding a third church, Mt. Zoar.
"Since we arrived June 1, 11 more churches have been burned nationwide, the president has made it the hot issue of the summer, and thousands of people from around the world have responded," says workcamp director Harold Confer, a builder from Washington, D.C., and head of Washington Quaker Workcamps, which is spearheading the reconstruction project.
In late July, with church construction well ahead of schedule, volunteers offered their services to the cash-strapped, all-black public school. "At first I was in disbelief, but it is real," says Kinnard. "I'd been wondering how to make the repairs before school opens, and the answer finally came with our good friends."
The work camp donates labor, expertise, and tools, while the school furnishes the supplies and lunch. Every day, more local youngsters have shown up to help with the repairs.
Work teams are also scrubbing, scouring, painting, and repairing the toilets and tiles in the school's bathrooms. "In a sense, this is a new re-creation of racial relations in America, because for the last 200 years it's been poor black women who have scrubbed the toilets," says Phillida Hartley, an Australian volunteer who initiated the school-repair project. "Now the toilets in this black school are being scrubbed by American and international white people who are doing it of their own free will, as a labor of love."
Meanwhile, Mr. Confer is laying plans, in partnership with the Presbyterian Church, to rebuild a church in nearby Greensboro. "Truly the church universal has responded. We began as a modest summer work camp," he says. "But it's turned into a movement because of the number of churches that have been burned and need help." As for how long he plans to stay in Alabama, Confer grins and says, "God only knows. And She's not telling."