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When Hatred Hits Home Uniting Against Hatred
An Outpouring of Goodwill

Church Burnings: Fighting Hate Through Action

At the time of the Holocaust a German Protestant minister said, "In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up." Pastor Martin Niemoeller conveyed the enduring message of the Holocaust: Next time it could be you.

Now it's time to apply that message to our country, our times, our own lives. Over the past 18 months, over 40 black or multiracial churches have been burned in the southern United States.

"We often think in these situations that it's happening to other people, that it doesn't affect us," said Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB). "It could happen to black churches; it could happen to Catholic churches; it could happen to Jewish synagogues; it could happen to Moslem mosques. We're all subject to this."

Motives for the attacks range from insurance fraud to vandalism to copycat behavior to racial antagonism. According to Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, however, "It's plain that racial hostility is behind many."

Investigators have said that there appears to be no conspiracy in the fires, which makes the large numbers even more disturbing. "The prospect of a conspiracy is a chilling thing," Patrick told U.S. News & World Report. "But the prospect that these are separate acts of racism is even worse."

When Hatred Hits Home

For Catholics the current burnings should serve as a painful reminder of the religious hatred we have endured.

More than a century ago, the same type of intolerance and hatred led to the burning of a number of Catholic churches, the lynching of dozens of Catholics, riots and the burning of a convent and school in Massachusetts.

Archbishop John Hughes of New York responded by saying, "Convents have been burned down, and no compensation offered to their scattered inmates; Catholic churches have been burned down....These things were the work of what is called mobs; but we confess our disappointment at not having witnessed a prompt and healthy, true American sentiment in the heart of the community at large in rebuke of such proceedings...."

It was a bold stand on a very volatile issue. It is the type of stand that needs to be taken today by all Americans.

Uniting Against Hatred

At their recent spring meeting in Portland, Oregon, the U.S. bishops pointed to the rash of church burnings as yet another indication of the growing culture of violence in our society. In fact, the night before the bishops' meeting began, the sanctuary of a Portland church was burned.

In addition to making a statement denouncing the burnings, the bishops designated $50,000 from NCCB funds to be donated to The Burned Churches Fund. They also raised $10,000 out of their own pockets to assist the Immanuel Free Methodist Church of Portland in rebuilding.

Congress responded to the fires by recently passing legislation that will allow federal prosecution of people who burn houses of worship. It will also permit federal judges to sentence those found guilty to 40 years in prison, which is double the average maximum term for state arson charges.

Monetary donations have been pouring in to help the congregations rebuild. For many of the churches, that money will be their only hope of rebuilding. But even if the churches do find the money to rebuild, the repercussions of these hate crimes will linger. As one parishioner said after her church was destroyed: "You can rebuild, but you can never replace." A number of the churches have also had their insurance canceled as a result of the fires.

Attacking people's place of worship is akin to breaking into their home. It's a deep personal violation and injustice. The church is a place of sanctuary--a place where they feel safe to let their guard down and be themselves. When you attack that sense of safety, you take away a certain comfort in people. That is what makes these burnings so disturbing and deplorable. We are all created equal in God's eyes. What affects one person affects us all.

The U.S bishops agree. "These evil acts not only destroy places of worship, they tear at the moral fabric of our nation....These fires have not only destroyed church buildings, but have shattered the illusion that bigotry is no longer a significant problem in our society. We deplore not only the burnings themselves, but also the underlying attitudes of bias and prejudice which can give rise to such attacks on places of worship. Hostility to religious institutions and to believers, whatever their race or ethnic identity, has no place in America."

An Outpouring of Goodwill

During a recent panel hearing on the church burnings, an audience member said the church burnings represented hate and prejudice, but there has also been an overwhelming outpouring of goodwill. That, he said, should be given just as much recognition as the burnings.

Truly the outpouring of compassion and help for congregations affected has been overwhelming. But in addition to helping replace the structures, we must also help rebuild the sense of hope in those congregations and communities. We must remember that Church and ecumenism extend beyond the four walls of a church building. If we want to prevent history from repeating itself, we must carry that message in our hearts every day and in every situation. Tomorrow we could need a helping hand.--S.H.B.

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