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$1-million allocated to rebuild churches damaged by arson

In its first round of grants, the National Council of Churches will distribute nearly $1-million to nine congregations from the $8.3-million it has collected so far to help predominantly African-American congregations whose churches have been damaged by fires.

"It's a joy to be able to provide resources that churches, foundations and donors have given," said the Rev. Albert Pennybacker, the council's associate general secretary for public policy. "The response of the (burned) churches is one of great appreciation and a great determination to move forward in ministry strengthened by these gifts."

The ecumenical group, with 33 Protestant and Orthodox member denominations, has been working to raise awareness about racial issues and offer support to congregations it believes have been the victims of racial violence.

Four churches will be able to begin rebuilding with grants totaling $600,000. They are Butler Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Orangeburg, S.C.; New Hope Baptist Church, Seattle; Gays Hill Baptist Church, Millen, Ga.; and St. Paul's Primitive Baptist Church, Lauderdale, Miss.

Two other churches _ Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Fruitvale, Tenn., and Mount Zion Baptist Church in Boligee, Ala. _ each will receive grants of $100,000 to continue their rebuilding.

In addition, three churches are expected to complete their rebuilding plans with a total of $116,000 in grants that will be used for furniture, trim work and landscaping. They are Mount Zoar Baptist Church, Boligee, Ala.; Canaan African Methodist Episcopal Church, Columbia, Tenn.; and Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, Greeleyville, S.C.

Meanwhile, other organizations, including the Christian Coalition and the American Jewish Committee, continue to raise funds and work on ways to improve race relations.

Meanwhile, another fire was being investigated at a small, predominantly black church in Providence, Ky.

The Providence Church of God in Christ was gutted in an early morning fire Tuesday, the Associated Press reported. The suspicious fire was one of more than 70 at properties owned by mostly black Southern churches since 1995. A similar number of predominantly white churches also have been attacked in the region during that time.

Pennybacker said donations continue to come in, including one from a Methodist woman who wrote a check for $10,000.

Of the $8.3-million in the NCC's Burned Churches Fund, about $2.7-million has been received in cash. In addition, there are pledges from churches and foundations, gifts from individuals and in-kind gifts, including lumber supplies from International Paper and modular office units from a subsidiary of General Electric.

Interest earned on donations that have been deposited in a New York bank will be used, along with some other gifts, to address the causes of racism, Pennybacker said.

"If we don't attack that, then we're simply rebuilding church buildings that are vulnerable all over again to the same racist violence," he said.

The rest of the contributions will be used for rebuilding.

"We are clearly committed to making sure monies given for reconstruction and restoration are used for that purpose," Pennybacker said, adding that specific rebuilding decisions, such as which contractors should be used, will be made by the individual churches.

"We want to be very respectful of the right of these congregations to make decisions and to guide the restoration process."

He added that the council, hopes to help churches with little or no insurance rebuild in ways that qualify them for full insurance coverage. Some churches in remote settings have been denied fire insurance because of insufficient access to water supplies.

"We've determined that part of restoration of a building like that . . . may mean we've got to dig a well or run a water line," he said.

The Christian Coalition is encouraging the 100,000 churches on its mailing list to hold "Racial Reconciliation Sundays" on Sunday. Some churches already marked the occasion July 14.

"The reports that we're getting is that things have been going absolutely tremendously," said the Rev. Earl Jackson, the coalition's national liaison for urban development. "I've been getting calls from all over the country . . . of people telling us what they've been doing."

Black and white congregations are holding joint services, and Christians of different races are working together on other fund-raising efforts, he said.

Coalition officials hope to raise from $500,000 to $1-million.

On Wednesday, the American Jewish Congress sponsored evening services throughout the country to mark the Jewish holiday of Tisha B'Av and highlight the need to assist the black congregations that have been victimized by arson.

Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of two ancient temples in Jerusalem and other Jewish tragedies through the centuries.

"As the burning of African-American churches in the South continues, there is a particularly deep resonance within the Jewish community," said David V. Kahn, the group's president.

"We have suffered wanton destruction of our houses of worship throughout our history. . . . The message of Tisha B'av inexorably leads us to assist the victims of the hateful church burnings in the South."

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