College Kids Raise Roofs And Lift Spirits

Like many college kids, Cathy Steadman and eight other Duke University students piled into a van last Saturday and set off for spring break. But while their friends don swimsuits and lounge on talcum-white Florida beaches, Ms. Steadman and company are spending their week on a tar-paper roof.

The roof belongs to God's Chapel, a half-finished log church in rural Tennessee. Last June , it burned in an inferno authorities say was arson. But it - and others like it - are rising again. The students are part of what is undoubtedly the nation's largest church rebuilding effort in history, a quiet movement under way in small towns and big cities from North Carolina to Arkansas.

"At first I thought, 'C'mon, I want a little fun,'" admits Steadman. "But this is good for the soul."

Nearly a year ago, a rash of church burnings mainly across the South shocked the nation, prompting a federal investigation and many to question whether racial hatred was on the rise.

But the response to the churches' plight has been massive. The rebuilding effort has generated millions of dollars in loans and donations, enlisted thousands of volunteers, and brought together individuals from different races and religions.

Some of those volunteers are college students, who are forgoing a spring break of fun in the sun to pound nails and saw wood at four burned churches in Florida, Virginia, and Tennessee.

The students are part of a rebuilding program organized by one of the nation's largest volunteer organizations, Christmas in April/USA Work Camps. More than 25 groups of about 12 students each will spend a week helping repair churches destroyed by arson.

But they are only one part of the concerted national effort to track down the arsonists and rebuild the buildings.

The National Church Arson Task Force, established last summer to investigate the burnings, says it has made significant progress.

The task force, which coordinates the efforts of several federal agencies, including the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, has opened probes of 364 arsons, bombings, or attempted bombings between January 1995 and March 1997.

Of those, 153 were black churches, most in the Southern states. Authorities have arrested 173 suspects in connection with 124 incidents, and made convictions in 52 of those incidents. Although many suspects are white juveniles, and some have been linked with white supremacist groups, the task force says it has not found evidence of a racist conspiracy.

Here in the pastoral countryside on the outskirts of Athens, Tenn., Duke students say rebuilding God's Chapel, a Pentecostal church, provides a unique cultural experience and an opportunity to help others.

"At Duke, we live in our own little intellectual island, a sheltered community," says Jacob Harold, a sophomore. "It's easy to forget things outside that little world."

When God's Chapel burned June 27, 1996, the destruction was devastating for the Rev. Gary Slater and his mostly white congregation.

Members began building the church five years ago, working on it on weekends and in their spare time. Days before it burned, they laid down the last piece of carpet.

Because members were doing the work themselves and had not hired a contractor, an insurance company refused to insure the structure until it was complete.

At the time, about 60 worshippers attended services, including several black and multiracial families.

Authorities investigating the blaze say arson is the likely cause, but they have not found enough evidence to arrest anyone.

Rev. Slater has his own suspicions as to who was behind it. He believes it was a hate crime but not necessarily racially motivated.

"There are known Satanic groups in the surrounding communities," says Slater, who wears a sweatshirt that says "Jesus is the Ultimate Volunteer."

"I've dealt in the past trying to help those individuals come out of it. But the groups they're with - they don't like it. I believe there's a connection."

After the blaze, God's Chapel contacted the National Council of Churches, which initiated a massive fund-raising effort last year to help burned churches deemed to have been targets of hate. So far, the NCC has received nearly $11 million.

So far, $4.9 million has been approved for aiding 79 churches, and another 34 churches will come before the organization's grants committee this spring. Twenty-two churches have been rebuilt, and 33 are in the process of construction.

The NCC gave God's Chapel a $100,000 grant. The International Paper Company donated $42,000 in lumber, and the Christian Coalition also helped with funding.

In the early months, churches in the area took up collections, and people drove by and wrote checks. One inmate sent all that he had - 35 cents.

But despite receiving nearly $150,000, Slater says the church still needs $130,000 to finish. He is appealing to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has set up a loan program for burned churches.

"To borrow what we need will be extremely hard just to make payments, but everything that has happened so far has happened for a reason," he says. "God has a place for us ... this is my field of dreams; if I build it people will come."

The congregation, which has dwindled somewhat since the burning, has been holding services in a donated tent on the premises.

The rebuilt God's Chapel will look much different than the old one, which was a white block structure. The new church is bigger and built with light-colored logs. A large window at the pulpit will provide a view of rolling green pastures and blue mountains.

A security fence will help protect the property from vandals, and Slater and his wife will live in a trailer on the site. Next to the church is a Sunday school, which houses the students.

Slater says he's been impressed with the students, who are dressed as if they came off the set of the TV show Home Improvement.

"You hear people talk about Generation Xers as if they don't have a clue," Slater says. "These students could be down in Panama City having fun, but instead they're on the roof kind of scared.

"Why they pass up fun and sun to do this - my opinion is because they want to do something that means something. They're good kids, and they work hard."

And while the students won't come back with beach-perfect tans, they do get something out of the week. "Anytime you get outside your comfort zone, you'll learn something," says Eric Laughlin, a junior.

He and the other students have attended church services with the members, visited a farm that didn't have electricity, and went with a member to a car show.

"Just seeing this part of the country is eye-opening," Mr. Laughlin says.

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