I am thankful for the privilege of being with you today to speak from my experience as pastor of one of the churches burned in the recent rash of church fires across the country. Thank you for caring enough to put us on your busy schedule.
Out from the fire at the Matthews Murkland Presbyterian Church on June 6, 1996 has come a. strange mixture of disappointment and delight.
It was disappointing when a beautiful 93-year old historic building was burned to the ground with-only the ashes and charred remains left. As pastor I had the awesome task of trying to help the members of the congregation make some sense out of such a senseless act. This was the place where most of them had been baptized, married and buried their loved ones. The devastation was deep and painful.
When we learned that a 13 year old female was charged with the crime it was a tragedy upon a tragedy. A life so young, so tender with so much to look forward to now had to face the stigma of being in a court system instead of enjoying her youth on a basketball court. A troubled young girl committed a devious act that caused much pain to her family, the church and the community. While our church was deeply hurt by the fire set by the young girl we were as deeply hurt for the young girl herself.
However, the disappointment and discouragement we felt, by the grace of God, was to be short lived., The pieces began to come together and it was plain to us that this event was not to break us but in a strange way was to bless us. . We did not ask for this set of circumstances but now that they were ours, we sought to make the best of a bad mess.
The local, state and federal forces came to the scene with dispatch and a determination to respond swiftly to this crime. They not only sought to solve the crime but to comfort us. We were frequently informed as to the progress of the case. When a suspect was caught we were notified and officials appeared in person before the congregation to answer any questions we had. I felt personally satisfied that they were up-front and honest in their investigation.
Because we are a faith community there was not a second thought as to whether we would extend mercy and compassion to the young girl then charged with the crime. We actively advocated for help and not harm for her and her family. We continue to pray for her today as she seeks to put her life together again.
In addition to the efficient response of law enforcement was the loving response of the Charlotte Community. Over and over again we kept having people say "we are with you". ,We will help you make some good out of this". The Charlotte community was determined not to allow this incident to further divide its people.
The Sunday following the fire was exemplary of the community spirit that existed in the Charlotte area. The church was filled with a rainbow of different people from different walks of life. The community used this as an opportunity not just to speak as one but to be one. We knew we were not alone and on this day it was proven to be true. We take great delight in the response we received from the Charlotte community.
Early on after the fire we were contacted and encouraged by HM stating that they would be available to help us get in a position to rebuild the burned part of our church. All along the rebuilding path the contact has been constant and the support available. The HUD contact gave us options as we made plans to rebuild. Rebuilding is not an easy task but the HUD connection served us well and we are glad they were there to be our partners in the rebuilding process.
Also emerging from the ashes of the fire has been the National Arson Task Force Initiative that has begun to work in the Charlotte Community. Already the fire and law enforcement bodies have begun informational and preventive programs with churches, schools, businesses and homes that is geared toward making Charlotte a less likely place for arsonist to strike. Community watch and church watch programs and strong and getting better. The various agencies working together have proven to be an effective way to help prevent and solve arson and hate crimes.
While on the one hand the fire was a discouraging time for us, on the other hand we have been uplifted and strengthened by the forces of good in both government and community who have stood up to the church burners and sought to help people pull themselves together, whether those churches burners were troubled teens or hateful groups. While in some cases the fires were meant to divide they have really brought people together.
President Clinton has reminded us that one of the beat ways to combat this kind of violence and hatred is for each of us to let others know that they are not going to live out their prejudices through us. Whether it be through a cruel racial, ethnic or sexual joke or through poisonous speeches or articles in the media, the American way is to stand on the aide of right and good until right and good stands triumphant and evil is buried in the ground where it belongs.
As a proud American citizen, I thank you for standing with us and all the churches that have burned and I hope. and pray that one day the whole world will see that we indeed have come to a point where people who would burn churches will know that it will defeat us or stop us from being the people our God has made us to be.
Thank you again for your time, effort and support in the rebuilding process of our church.
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