Mr. Chairman Faircloth and members of the Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Regulatory Relief:
It is an honor to participate in these hearings on the impact of the Church Arson Prevention Act. Please accept my thanks. I would like to request that a copy of my complete testimony be included in the Committee records.
First, let me commend the members of the United States Senate, and indeed the entire Congress, and specifically Senator Lauch Faircloth, for enacting this important legislation: the Church Arson Prevention Act. At the time of its passage with the commitment and support of President Clinton and the Administration, it embodied the swift and unanimous response of government to an epidemic of hate and violence focused in the most loathsome way on the country's houses of worship, especially. though not exclusively, the African American churches.
The signal to the American people was clear: such acts of hatred and violence will no longer be tolerated. Investigation will be aggressive. The penalties will be serious. The providing of assistance to the victimized will be generous and sincere. It was leadership--in our terms moral leadership--by government at its finest.
That the impact was important and positive is confirmed in the dramatic drop in the number of the burnings of black churches which in that awful time of 1995-96 had so tragically 0 increased. Burnings continue. Currently we face 70 churches that have been attacked and need assessment and assistance in rebuilding. But that is only a little more than half of the 124 congregations with which we have worked since June 1996. Let me underscore: the national repudiation of these acts of violence, to a large extent led by the public acts of government embodied in this legislation and the implementing activity of the Administration, and the moral leadership of the religious communities, has been effective and, in many ways, profound.
Let me Summarize what has occurred through the unique ecumenical and interreligious partnership, led by the National Council of Churches, which has included Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic religious communities. In addition to the _3 )4 national church bodies in the National Council of Churches, including seven of the historic African American denominations who have played such an active and supportive role in the Burned Churches Project (a full listing of the member church bodies is attached), the partnership has included the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Congress of National Black Churches, the American Jewish Committee, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism-Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Islamic Circle of North America, the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops of America, and the Unitarian Universalist Association. The National Council of Churches itself, as the oldest and largest national ecumenical body in the United States, brought to the partnership, and to the administration of the Burned Churches Project, the commitment of a constituency of 150,000 local congregations with 54 million church members.
Of the 124 congregations with which we have worked, all identified as victims of racial hatred, the following results have been achieved:
Churches fully assessed: 97
Churches not qualifying: 6
Churches deferred to Phase II: 21
Construction and grants completed (7/l/97): 38
Construction currently underway: 52
Special grants (land purchases, planning, financial assistance, etc.): 7
Financial gifts for the Burned Churches Project including the emerging program challenging racism as the root cause of the fires: $7,453,069
Designed exclusively for building restoration: $6,251,621
Grants and Assistance provided to date: $5,468,483
Balance for restoration committed to Phase 11: $783,138
Additionally, material and in-kind gifts, such as the wood products available to every burned church provided by the International Paper Corporation, are valued at $3 million, all used for reconstruction and refurbishing. Twenty-eight congregations already are using the wood products from International Paper.
As Phase 11 of the project begins, additional gifts are being received. For instance, the Harry and Leona HeImsley Foundation, in cooperation with the One Hundred Black Men Organization, has given $1 million and pledged an additional $500,000 on a matching basis is an incentive to others. We are very grateful to Mrs. Helmsley for her initiation of this generous gift. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is prepared to make a major additional reconstruction gift, as are the American Baptist Churches. We move forward into Phase 11 confidently, with these and other expressions of support.
The Church Arson Prevention Act has allowed us to become a partner with the Department of Housing and Urban Development in numerous ways, notably in blending grants and bank loan guarantees for church reconstruction. The active leadership of Secretary Cuomo prior to his appointment, and his remarkably committed and competent staff, have made the public/private partnership in the National Rebuilding Initiative effective. We are grateful and so are the burned churches. Loan processes are slow and exacting. But the blending grants and guaranteed bank loans is providing financial resources for rebuilding that are manageable by these congregations.
It should be noted that your mandate for assisting with church arson is broader than requiring evidence of only racially motivated arson. We believe this is a strength. HUD can consider victimized congregations that fall outside the needs the Burned Churches Project can currently address.
There are notable and numerous successes, both in the scope and generosity of the American people in responding to acts of racial hatred, and in the actual results in the victimized congregations. You have a right to share in the consequences in human terms. Let me cite just three such successes.
St. Paul Primitive Missionary Baptist Church in Lauderdale, Mississippi, has been completely rebuilt. Its 24-year old pastor, the Rev. Johnny MacDonald, and his family were burned out of their trailer home in March 1996. The church was burned to the ground on April 7, 1996. Local officials appear to be convinced the fire was started accidentally; situational and common sense evidence suggest another cause. An isolated building on a dead-end county road, located 50 yards back. is hardly the casual victim of a flicked cigarette. The site is not far from the graves of the three young men killed during the civil rights struggles of the Sixties. The graves continue to be regularly attacked and desecrated. Racism is alive. In the Burned Churches Project we believe the evidence of racist motivation for the burning is clear.
The rebuilding has been remarkable. A local Meridian businessman, Obie Clark, volunteered as project manager and general contractor. Mr. Clark coordinated planning, material delivery, and labor, both paid and volunteer. People came both from in the community and from outside. Some worked for a weekend; some stayed for the months of rebuilding. Some slept in tents in an open field near the site; others used the high school building, with showers! The congregation fed the volunteers. Started in September, the building was completed and dedicated just before Christmas 1996.
The absence of verified arson evidence made federal guarantees unavailable. The rebuilding was completely funded through the Burned Churches Project grants totaling $97,748 in funds plus $15,000 in materials. The costs of rebuilding were a little over $42 per square foot. This congregation family entered 1997 in a new home.
The True Light Missionary Baptist Church in Ruleville, near Clarksdale, Mississippi, burned on December 12, 1995. The needs of the congregation were brought to the Burned Churches Project by Secretary Cuomo. Pastor John Williams asked Mrs. Devera Sanders to lead the rebuilding. What happened illustrates another aspect of HUD's positive role in the National Rebuilding Initiative.
Mrs. Sanders took the tasks seriously. She began asking questions--at the local banks, at her Congressman's office, of nearby University of Mississippi officials. Mrs. Sanders attended the Memphis regional meeting of the National Rebuilding Initiative. There she learned what she needed to know about the rebuilding process, resources available and how it would fit with True Light's needs. Reconstruction was considered first. Our staff counseled. What would be the construction costs? What debt could the congregation carry? Then a local 'judge gave True Light an in-town lot. Then another local congregation, planning to move, offered to sell True Light their building. Mrs. Sanders called the Burned Churches Project staff. "How do you buy a building? Could the grant for reconstruction apply to a purchase?" Assured a purchase would be fine, Mrs. Sanders followed the checklist for a property sale. HUD and B.P. staff contacted the University asking to "loan" her engineers to check the building's structure and mechanical systems. From the sale of the donated land, the National Council's grant, the congregation's own gifts of $1 0,000. and donated furniture, hymnals and Bibles, the congregation moved into its new church home before Easter 1997. The total cost was $85,000. This "midwife" in contact, encouragement and training was the National Building Initiative through Secretary Cuomo and HUD.
St. Mark's Missionary Baptist Church in Chelford, Arkansas, was rebuilt in ten days last Spring. There had been no way to rebuild, according to Rev. Waldo Campbell, St. Mark's sight impaired pastor. The Volunteers in Mission Project of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) recruited 350 "Spring Break" volunteers. Construction costs and material procurement were coordinated with the B.P. staff. The grant was $ 1 00,000 with an additional $25,000 in donated materials and the labor of congregation members and volunteers. Six neighboring congregations (multi-racial) fed the workers--a biblical "multitude"! The dedication was on a Thursday night ten days after beginning, and the congregation's first Sunday service in their new building was on Easter 1997.
Other stories could be told. No congregation has collapsed; many have grown and been strengthened. Government loan guarantees are now in place, or in process in six congregations. The important point is not the 11 Umber but the fact that these loan guarantees are available and working. The applications are increasing on the basis of proven success. The use of loan guarantees will be increasingly important as we move forward.
Not all stories are positive. Let me point to difficulties and needs that have surfaced during this year.
First, in terms of banking practices even with government guarantees, the process is slow. Congregations, as largely voluntary associations, cannot always sustain themselves throughout protracted financial negotiations. Often dealing with lending institutions and their requirements is a new experience. In most cases church records were destroyed in the fire and the costs of research and replacement exceed the capacity of the struggling church.
Further, the loans needed are at an amount often smaller than warrant a bank's attention and processing. But a larger loan is more than a congregation can responsibly undertake. Encouragement to banks to respond creatively and with new sensitivity to the needs of these struggling congregations, perhaps as a part of their community service, needs to be encouraged. Are there incentives for banking institutions to act accordingly that can be pursued? Are there community investment opportunities in banking laws that can apply?
A specific situation, the New Hope Baptist Church in Seattle, destroyed by fire in May 1994, is an example of banking problems and rebuilding frustration. The church simply needs a loan. Even with HUD loan guarantees, currently no bank has been willing to assume the risk. An important Seattle religious community languishes for want of a lender.
A second area of difficulty has to do again with the nature of these congregations. Small in size, many are not technically not-for-profit institutions under federal tax laws and guidelines. They are DBA's--"doing business as." This causes complications for recognizing contributions as charitable deductions, personally but especially for community-minded corporations. Adjustments would be especially beneficial for such corporations as International Paper, Steelcase, GE Capital and others who have made very important and generous in-kind gifts. Since these are gifts not in funds given to the National Council of Churches by other 501 (c)(3) qualified non-profit institutions, there is no tax incentive or consideration. Addressing this problem is needed.
Third, the legislatively mandated HUD guidelines need to be relaxed in administration to allow quick loan application approval while still preventing abuses. In no way is this a criticism of HUD. It is rather the frank recognition that the unique needs of this body of churches do not fit entirely into the formal process of the law's administration. A careful review of what adjustment may be needed in order to achieve our shared goal of providing real assistance is required. The staff of the Burned Churches Project stands ready to assist in such a review.
Additionally, the staffing at HUD addressing the loan guarantees programs, and even the National Rebuilding Initiative itself has been in transition. We urge a fully staffed program. With changes now, remarkable service has been given by the current assigned staff. It is remarkable what has been accomplished under these circumstances in this one year.
Creative approaches to these burnings and similar future needs may be required. For instance, the pooling of charitable gifts and banking responses may be required. with federal encouragement. Such a practice might make both lending and rebuilding more operational. For instance, a coalition of 60 congregations has been developed in Baltimore related to agreements to establish banking relationships with four local banking institutions, including Nationsbank, the largest. Similar practices may be useful elsewhere. An appropriate government role of encouraging such creative developments needs to be explored.
Let me turn for a moment to the aspects of the legislation empowering thorough law enforcement. It has been a decided asset. The statistics on investigation, arrests and convictions is not only impressive but remarkable. The Burned Churches Project on two occasions has commended publicly the work of James Johnston and his former colleague Deval Patrick, as well as the interim Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Isabelle Katz Pinzler who has assumed leadership without missing a beat. The National Church Arson Task Force has been very . effective. Comparing where law enforcement on this issue stood a year ago with today reveals clear commitments and a positive course of action aggressively pursued. The work with field agents, their understanding of racist behavior and their sensitivity in dealing with the victimized congregations and communities has been very positive.
However. there is still need for improvement. The federal role in working with local law enforcement officials needs to be strengthened. Often the pattern of racism entrenched in a community lives with law enforcement as its servant. Giving federal assurance to potential witnesses and buildings confidence of access to federal officials who will act forcefully and fairly needs to mark the way ahead.
Secondly, the public is inclined to use law enforcement statistics to discount racism. Obviously justice officials have to be bound by the requirement for credible evidence of racism; that is, evidence presentable and persuasive in a court of law. The religious community can affirm the reality of racism in contextual terms without legal tests. Sin, for the good of all of us, does not need a court of law to confirm its existence or potency. The religious community has identified racism in these burnings clearly apparent beyond the legal requirements and the narrowness of often evasive reasoning. The Burned Churches Project is grateful that the law enforcement agencies have recognized this difference in the portion of the turf of racism we address. Their understandin- has, for instance, exceeded the understanding of some representatives of the press. This quickness of federal officials to interpret the reports of the Burned Churches Project with such sensitive understanding has been notably helpful to us but it has also been a lesson in maturing for political leadership and public awareness.
Opposition to the Burned Churches Project, especially in the face of its unquestioned achievements, is especially sad. The persistent preoccupation with the needs to locate a national racist conspiracy behind these burnin0s or to deny that racism is involved is close to being a Catch 22. The truth is that the spread of burnings demographically across the country will reveal clusters of high incidents. Further, racism is an illness of spirit and soul that does not need a conspiratorial plan or a central committee in order to do its evil work. It needs to be addressed by religious communities ill spiritual, even conversion, terms. It needs to be faced through public policies committed to removing disabilities, the prosecution of perpetrators, and the opening up of opportunities. The fact is that poverty, marginalizing, and structural bigotry and discrimination breed racist attacks. Only those who want to persist in blindness engage in such denials of racist violence and hatred in these burnings. Indeed they play into the very racism they deny.
Further, the attacks may be rooted in agendas that are exploitive of and largely unrelated to the needs and experiences of those violated congregations. Statistical reports become twisted and made self-serving. Such attacks need to be carefully and clearly repudiated. I hope these very hearings can serve to keep us on track with what has been so positively begun: a clear repudiation of this loathsome racism in our midst and its violent acts
Under the leadership of our General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, and our current President, United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert, the National Council of . Churches is entering Phase II of the Burned Churches Project, challenging the blatant, subtle and tenacious racism that continues in our common life and our public behavior. The twin focused goals of Phase It are rebuilding Communities that will repudiate racism and rebuilding churches that have been its victims. We anticipate cooperating with President Clinton's commitment to challenge racism nationwide.
As Dr. Campbell has clearly stated elsewhere: "Racism and its consequent acts are morally wrong and spiritual evil. Simply, racism is sin. Fighting sin is our business, sin both personal and public. We will continue to fight."
Thank you for your interest but even more for your partnership in this fight against hatred and violence translated into the useful tool of effective legislation. As it is strengthened in the future, we are committed to continuing the public/private partnership, the collaborative work of government and religious bodies in serving the common good,
Home | Menu | Links | Info | Chairman's Page