A Lesson from the Ashes

If every community had a young person who cared enough about his brothers and sisters who were hurting—and who started a disaster response organization—we could have a totally different view of today’s youth.

Justin Moffett, a 16-year-old from Westfield, Indiana, thought that it was terrible that African American churches were burning all over the South. He was especially moved by the burning of Salem Baptist Church on December 30, 1995.

With the help of his family, school, and church friends he formed a disaster response organization called "Works in Progress," and made plans to journey to a disaster site of a burned church and offer enthusiastic hands and feet to the task of recovery.

Addressing the needs of this burned church in Humboldt, Tennessee, in the summer of 1996 was just one of a number of Quaker responses to church burnings by arson and other causes that summer, but it was remarkable because of the age of its organizer.

Daniel Donaldson, the pastor of Salem Baptist Church, was as shocked and dismayed as any of the pastors of the now 1,500 houses of worship burned of all causes since 1995. "How to rebuild a burned church" is not a common course given in seminaries today, and Donaldson was unprepared for this human disaster.

He was also caught off guard by the help that materialized from thin air. Another pastor, James Kinsey of Sunswept Baptist Church in Union City, Tennessee, gave him a list of different mission groups who might be able to come. From that list "came a call from a gentleman by the name of Justin Moffett, representing this group of Quakers from Ohio and Indiana. He was calling to schedule dates and reach clarity on what kind of work would be needed upon their arrival." Pastor Donaldson was very impressed by this phone call and reported to his church family that Mr. Moffett seemed to know exactly what he had in mind to do. It was not until a few weeks later that Donaldson found out how young Justin was when Justin called one afternoon and talked to his 18-year-old son, Danny, who respectfully addressed him "Sir." Justin told Danny not to say "Sir" as Danny was older than he was. Danny was shocked that this leader of Works in Progress was two years younger than he!

When he reported this fact to his dad, who shared it with the church family, it raised many questions in their minds. Who was actually in charge of this mission team? If it was this 16-year-old, then who was in charge of him? The questions and disquiet grew before the Quakers were due to appear. Pastor Donaldson traveled to Sunswept Baptist Church and apprehensively waited with Pastor Kinsey for them to arrive. Justin arrived with his grandfather, and Donaldson was impressed with them both. He wrote to me that "Justin was a man of character while yet in a child’s body."

It became clear that Justin was in charge. He was there supervising every day. Justin had people of all ages working under his supervision, even men of 60 or older. It is my experience that few youth in authority over others older than themselves can manage this effectively. I have seen situations where older workers, resenting the exercise of authority by a young person, have actually sabotaged the work to show the leader he was not so smart after all, especially if the directions given were incomplete or given with a sense of unearned superiority. It takes a great deal of sensitivity and recognition of the skills the different workers bring to get them to cooperate under the leadership of one younger than they.

Justin, however, not only impressed the pastor. The children and youth in his congregation began to see in Justin a person who had not allowed his youth to be a stumbling block to achieving what he wanted to accomplish. In fact, these youngsters came to see that his age was an asset in the service of God. The pastor described Justin as "a great motivator." As the church family of all ages observed the work of joy, they asked to join in. They became convinced that anyone with the willingness to serve, take directions, and try hard could help.

Many of Justin’s workers had never worked with African Americans before and experienced people who did not fit their stereotypes. Justin told me that the greatest thing his workers took away from their experience was spiritual growth and recognition of their own sister- and brotherhood with the members of Salem Baptist. Racial reconciliation, not a goal they set out with, was a gift from God that they took home.

This rebuilding led Pastor Donaldson to reflect about the future. He was concerned that his church family did not have any experts or even major skilled workers, but through Justin’s leadership he came to see that they possessed the greatest gift of all—willingness to risk and to work hard.

By the end of the summer the church was completely rebuilt. The high came when both President Clinton and Vice President Gore arrived with their families for the dedication service. Justin headed back home with his friends after a satisfying summer watching and helping a church rise from the ashes.

But the best part of this story came a year later when Daniel Donaldson and his flock decided they wanted to do something themselves, in a sense to give back what had been given to them. By this time he was in contact with many other pastors of burned churches, and they decided to help another church rebuild. Donaldson and 17 members of his church family traveled to Ladonia, Texas, for a summer of church rebuilding to help Missionary Baptist Church.

This was a totally different experience, they discovered, from helping rebuild their own church. The culmination, as Donaldson told me, came when they drove home. "As my people wearily dismounted from the van and walked to their own cars, they were not walking on the ground, they were walking on air!" It was not until they were able to rebuild another burned church that the impact of that act of service hit them.
"Now," he said, "I know what Justin and you Quakers get out of this experience!"

What we get is the eternally important rediscovery that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Now, four years later, Donaldson works as the state volunteer coordinator for the National Coalition of Burned Churches. He insists that every church that rebuilds plan to take on another burned church themselves, often the next summer. "Only then do you truly discover what it means to rebuild a burned church!"

After two summers of mission trips to Ladonia, Donaldson’s church rebuilding crew decided to add a 2,400-square-foot educational annex to their own church. All of the work was done by the members of Salem Baptist. The contractor they hired to oversee their work, Vernell Arnold, was amazed and delighted at the talent they had within their own congregation. The addition was completed in less than six months.

Thank you, Justin. I hope you can see that your Quaker youth and adults from Ohio and Indiana did much more than rebuild a burned Salem Baptist church in Humboldt, Tennessee. You also ignited the spirit of workcamping among those you helped so that they in turn helped others as well as themselves. Your works are still in progress.

Justin is an example of what Nancy Thiessen, the leader of a Mennonite work-camp organization, taught me years ago: "The young people working as work-campers are the leaders of the church of today, not the church of tomorrow."

As I have been privileged to see many other young Justins come through my church rebuilding workcamps, I can only say "Amen!"

Harold B. Confer

Harold B. Confer is a member of Adelphi (Md.) Meeting and has participated in and led workcamps for almost 50 years. A winner of the Clarence and Lilly Pickett Fund for Quaker Leadership, he is working with members of his meeting and others to start a new disaster response organization that will target human-caused disasters such as burned houses of worship. © 2000 Harold B. Confer