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NCC burned church aid draws fire from right

NCR Staff

The Institute on Religion and Democracy, long a Cold War critic of the National Council of Churches and liberalism in mainline Protestantism, has found a new cause: the NCC's project to assist churches it believes are victims of racially-motivated arson.

In a series of news releases, the conservative institute, headed by President Diane Knippers, has accused the council of exaggerating and exploiting the issue for its own financial gain and as a way of bolstering its "leftist" agenda, and has called on the council to fire two black leaders involved in the project.

NCC general secretary Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, in a Sept. 21 memo to the council's executive board, said the institute's attack on the burned churches program "plays into the agenda of white supremacist racism" by calling for the council "to apologize for perpetrating the 'great church fire hoax.' "

Campbell said that black churches burn at a disproportionately higher rate than white churches, and that the council's work with the churches and their pastors and members has shown that racism is a factor in many of the arsons. Independent sources who have conducted their own research have confirmed the NCC's findings, including the U.S. Justice and Treasury Departments, she said.

Far from inspiring racial hostility, "it is clear that the conscience and the soul of America have been touched by the black church burnings," Campbell said. "Those who have contributed so generously have been a sign of America's growing disgust with racism."

Other critics have questioned the racial implications of the recent black church arsons (NCR, July 26), but government agencies and major corporations and other denominations who have contributed to the burned churches fund generally accept that racism is behind most of the burnings. The IRD, however, has latched onto the issue, charging the council with creating "a false impression of raging racist violence."

The issue might have remained unnoticed, had not the council used its access to the White House to publicize it, according to Mark Tooley, IRD research associated. He said the NCC leaders gained favor last November when they visited President Clinton during the partial shutdown of the federal government brought about by a dispute between Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress. The council said its leaders had met with the president to deliver the text of a resolution on social welfare policy, a resolution critical of both the administration and Congress. But the institute claimed that the NCC offered its support to Clinton during the budget crisis, leading to the opportunity to bring 30 pastors to Washington to meet with Clinton in June.

Saying the resulting media attention "generated a fundraising bonanza," the institute also criticized the council for earmarking 15 percent of funds for administration and for programs that address racism. It accused the council of spending a large chunk of its Burned Churches Fund to "subsidize its bureaucratic infrastructure and political action efforts, programs for which it could not previously gain funding."

The council "has employed incendiary and extraordinarily irresponsible rhetoric to gain attention to their cause," the institute said, which, "along with the mistaken impression that black churches are in imminent danger, has contributed nothing to racial reconciliation in this country. Its impact, if anything, has been to feed and fuel racial fear and animosities."

The work to assist the churches has been carried out by a the National Rebuilding Task Force, cochaired by the NCC, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Congress of National Black Churches, and by more than 1,000 volunteers coordinated by Habitat for Humanity, according to a statement from the council.

Campbell emphasized that the Burned Churches Fund has always been clear that funds were being raised to rebuild churches and for programs to address racism. "We respect to the penny any donor's designation of funds for 'rebuilding only' or 'program work against racism only,' " she said. She said the Burned Churches Fund will soon publish a full financial report.

As of Oct. 17, the grants committee had allotted more than $2.3 million to 33 congregations. One recent grant was to a predominantly white church, Hickory Grove Community Church in Ottumwa, Iowa, destroyed by arson Sept. 2. It is suspected the church was targeted for its ministry to Mexican migrants working in local meat-packing plants.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy also called for the dismissal of project leaders Rev. Mac Charles Jones and Don Rojas for their left leanings. Jones is the NCC associate to the general secretary for racial justice, director of the Burned Churches Project and pastor of St. Stephen Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., and Rojas, a Catholic, is a consultant and office manager of the project. Rojas in particular was singled out for his support for "Marxist-Leninist" regimes in the 1980s, including his work as press officer for the Grenada government prior to the U.S. invasion in 1983.

The institute also said Rojas has supported Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and Leonard Jeffries, a former professor of City College in New York, both of whom have been accused of anti-Semitism. The IRD claimed that Rojas organized anti-Semitic forums for Farrakhan and Jeffries while working for the Benjamin Chavis, former president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Rojas denies charges of anti-Semitism. "I have never shared a podium with Farrakhan or Jeffries or organized an event for them," Rojas told The Washington Times. He also called charges that he is anti-American "absolute nonsense," and said that he had "no regrets" about his work for the Grenada government.

Rojas offered to resign "if it was important for the survival of the coalition," said NCC spokesperson Carol Fouke, but his resignation was refused.

Campbell defended Jones and Rojas, "two black men whose leadership is widely recognized and respected in the African-American community and beyond." She said that Rojas, a "Christian socialist," has never been a member of a communist organization, and that he has publicly repudiated the anti-Semitism of Jeffries and Farrakhan.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996