Black America was jubilant on the morning of June 17, when Loretta Lynch was sworn in as the first African-American woman to be appointed U.S. attorney general.Before the sun set, that jubilation was choked when it was announced that nine Black worshippers had been slain in a church in Charleston, S.C. We went from elation to deflation in a matter of hours.
This week, we are again celebrating a first by a Black woman—Misty Copeland was made principal ballerina at the American Ballet Theatre. But as we applaud Copeland’s accomplishment, we are saddened to learn that over the past two weeks, at least six African-American churches have been torched. In the wake of a major breakthrough in the arts, we suffer a setback on our faith front.
It wasn’t enough that nine Black men and women, in the apparent safety of their sanctuary, were gunned down. Now they are going after the edifice of our beliefs, hitting at the core of Black America’s spiritual essence.
While we are glad to hear that the nation is again alerted to the spreading destruction, happy to learn that the ever vigilant Southern Poverty Law Center and the FBI are investigating these incidents, so much more must be done to halt these flames.
Local officials where the churches have been burned believe the fires are related to the recent demonstrations against the Confederate flag. Law enforcement agencies are withholding their judgment, pending further investigation.
In 1996, more than 100 houses of worship were destroyed by fire. The Justice Department determined that the majority of them were arsons and possibly ignited by right-wing hate groups.
The jury may still be out on who the culprits are. What cannot wait is an answer to the question, what do we do in the meantime?
During the outrage over the burnings that occurred 20 years ago, Black church leaders quickly posted security guards at their churches. There’s no way to determine how effective this action was because no follow-up study was done.
One action that is absolutely necessary is that the churches be rebuilt, and sometimes that’s difficult when so many of them are without insurance. That’s something we learned in the late ’90s after the tireless commitment of the National Council of Churches in Christ.
Our hope is that a similar rescue operation is soon underway to rebuild the churches. The NCC’s Burned Churches Fund and Burned Churches Project rebuilt more than 100 churches, ably assisted by Habitat for Humanity.
“It is appropriate now that we pause and reflect on the theological and ecclesial significance of how persons of faith responded to the call to rebuild these churches that were destroyed by fire,” wrote Bishop Melvin G. Talbert of the United Methodist Church of San Francisco in 1997. It is time to renew that effort.
Yes, we are abundantly joyful and uplifted by the successes of Lynch and Copeland. But there is apparently no joy without sorrow, as one great poet observed. After the laughter and the tears, we must get back to work, back to defending our rights by whatever means necessary and comforting the afflicted.
Restoring our holy places is nothing new for Black Americans. And it won’t be the last time we’ve risen from the ashes.