Another Baptist church building in rural Alabama has been destroyed by fire, bringing the total to 10 as of last weekend.
Half of those churches belonged to predominantly black congregations and half to white. All represented a social and economic convergence for 10 small, close-knit congregations with generations of family and community ties.
Church burning represents an attempt to destroy that precious sense of community, and these incidents are not just a series of attacks on separate, isolated congregations, but an affront to American society and its values.
I grew up in a black church, a Baptist church located in an area of Birmingham, Ala., near the steel mills. That church was the center of that neighborhood. We were a family. Its members included founders of the church as well as second and third generations of family members. We joined together for after-church suppers, we had several choirs, we put on plays related to stories in the Bible. It was where I learned about the Bible. It was a place of comfort and help to its members and its neighbors. That church building was rarely empty. It hummed with activity.
I can imagine a member of one of those burned churches coming to stand before the blackened shell and silently asking, "Why?" He or she might say, "Lord, this is too hard to bear," and start talking to the Lord.
I remember how a member of our church would stand up and talk out loud to God during the tumultuous civil rights era. She would talk until she felt lifted up.
The talk would continue until she felt forgiveness for those who were threatening us. That conversation would go on until there was nothing but joy overflowing from the heart. I have seen people who were defeated clasping the hand of the person standing next to them during the prayer and saying, "Thank you, Lord, for You are the victor." And those listeners as well as the speaker would leave victorious, strengthened and assured that all would be well.
It may have been just such a holy communing that gave the Rev. James Posey, pastor at Morning Star Baptist Church, which burned down recently in Boligee, the faith to say, "I have to believe that some good is going to come of this, somehow. We don't know what shape it will take, but we are convinced that some good will come out of it" (The New York Times, Feb. 11).
Perhaps his comment hints at the fact that although church buildings were lost, the essence of church has not been lost. Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, described Church in this way: "The structure of Truth and Love; whatever rests upon and proceeds from divine Principle" ("Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," p. 583).
This idea of Church emphasizes a solid foundation, the unvarying Principle we know God to be, and the structure itself as spiritual, consisting of the understanding of two of the biblical names for God, Truth and Love.
This spiritual structure exists in our hearts and cannot be destroyed. This structure is with us no matter what happens to the physical walls and roof of our church homes. This kind of structure gives us a sense of timeless protection, the Comforter or spirit of Truth, which is open to all and yet never vulnerable. It can give hope to individuals and families, and provide an inspiration in rebuilding. It can unite us all in love and fellowship for our brothers and sisters who have lost their church buildings, and spur us all to include them in our prayers.
A church home is a lighted candle giving light to all who are in the house, community, this nation, and the world. This spiritual idea is indestructible.