From the May 1996 issue:
Sometimes a news article touches the heart and moves people to reach out to one another in unexpected ways. So it was this winter when the Washington Post published a piece on the rash of fires that have destroyed black churches in the South in recent months. There have been 23 reported fires in seven Southern states in the past three years, all of which were proven or suspected to be the work of arsonists. Nineteen of the fires have occurred since January 1995.
Last December’s burning of the 100-year-old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Boligee, Alabama, was a total loss. Three weeks later, on January 11, two other black churches in the same county were burned to the ground on the same night. On February 1, four churches were torched in Louisiana, three in the town of Baker. No arrests have been made in any of these most recent incidents.
When Friend Harold B. Confer, executive director of Washington Quaker Workcamps, saw the article, he decided to do something about it. After a series of phone calls, he and two colleagues accepted an invitation to travel to western Alabama and see the fire damage for themselves. They were warmly received by the pastors and congregations of the three Greene County churches. Upon their return, they set to work on a plan. What has resulted is the Alabama ’96 Summer Workcamp Project, an ambitious undertaking that will involve volunteers from across the country in an effort to rebuild the three Alabama churches. As Harold wrote in a recent letter (quoting from a Habitat for Humanity poster), “Once again, God’s people can use a good carpenter!”
Here’s the plan. The summer-long building effort will include three international, intergenerational, month-long workcamps. They will run consecutively, designed to provide a volunteer labor force to the locally chosen contractor. Throughout the summer there will be shorter weekend service opportunities for churches and Friends meetings as well. Washington Quaker Workcamps has responsibility to recruit the volunteers and to organize offers of labor from other sources so as not to overwhelm the local building efforts.
“The response we have received from everyone who has heard this story has been overwhelming,” Harold Confer writes. “We have had offers of assistance from Unitarian Universalist, Episcopal, and Catholic communities and would like to hear from many others .… We can work together to help our friends in Alabama and to say a loud ‘no’ to all forms of racial or ethnic hatred and a joyful ‘yes’ to community and mutual respect.”
The organizing task for the summer is a daunting one, but Washington Quaker Workcamps seems well experienced to take it on. Since 1985 the nonprofit organization, under Harold’s able leadership, has provided service opportunities in a variety of settings, doing useful work on three continents: in the Washington, D.C., area, in Tanzania, and in Romania. The top of their organization letterhead reads, “Work Is Love Made Visible.”
How may Friends be supportive? Be in touch directly with Washington Quaker Workcamps. [Outdated info taken out; these workcamps are now being run by William Penn House.] Volunteers are needed; money will be important too.
My personal hope as well is that Friends will write letters of concern to the U.S. Department of Justice to urge an ongoing, active investigation into the church burnings. Those responsible should be arrested and brought to trial without delay.