The nation's largest agency representing predominantly black churches has set up a fund to help at least two Southern black churches that have been burned in recent months.
The St. Petersburg-based National Baptist Convention USA Inc. announced the drive as 25 black ministers from the Tampa Bay area met Monday at Ruth Eckerd Hall to discuss the burnings.
"We want to raise awareness in the business community and the church community that if they want to donate funds there's a vehicle in place to do that," said the Rev. Larry Lewis, who represented Convention President Henry J. Lyons at the conference.
The National Baptist Convention represents 33,000 churches with 8.5-million members.
At least 66 predominantly African-American churches have been burned since 1995, and most of those were suspicious, Lewis said.
The Convention initially wants to raise $120,000 for two Baptist churches in Selma, Ala. One of the churches has no insurance, the other needs help completing its rebuilding. The churches were chosen because they had not received grants from the National Council of Churches, Lewis said.
Few local black congregations have panicked over the rash of torchings elsewhere, primarily because most of the burned churches were in rural areas, Lewis said.
"We've been relatively calm," he said. "We understand it can happen here but the problem is not as great" in urban areas.
Representatives from the state Insurance Commission and two local security firms also discussed the latest security technology at the conference. Convention leaders also said Neighborhood Watch and police programs can be expanded to include neighborhood churches.
St. Petersburg City Council member Ernest Fillyau, a conference speaker, recalled that two St. Petersburg churches have burned down since he took office in 1991 _ McCabe United Methodist Church in 1991 and St. Jude United Holiness Church in 1993.
Fillyau said congregations should not let down their guard.
"They say faith without works is dead, but you have to work toward faith," Fillyau said. "Sometimes, you have to give God some help."
How to donate
Those wishing to donate to the church rebuilding fund can make checks payable to: Church Burnings, c/o Republic Bank, 100 34th St. N, St. Petersburg, FL 33713.