Now Processed: The Burned Churches Project Records
In June 1996, the Rev. Dr. Mac Charles Jones led 38 pastors to Washington DC. These pastors had all served church buildings that were burned by white supremacists. For two days, the pastors met with the President of the United States, the attorney general, and members of Congress to share how the fires impacted their church communities and the racism they experienced in the aftermath of the arson. The pastors sharing their stories led to the creation of the Church Arson Investigative Task Force, increased penalities for arson targeting religious organizations, and brought national media attention to church burnings.
Rev. Mac Charles Jones knew the pastors' stories well. In his role as Deputy General Secretary for the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC) he had spent the previous three months traveling the United States, mostly in the south, visiting Black churches that had been burned and speaking with congregations, pastors, and community members.
Jones heard stories of how pastors were treated with suspicion from law enforcement, struggled to attain bank loans for rebuilding, or had trouble collecting on their insurance policies. Jones also heard how the church burnings destroyed buildings that were the center of their social life and community: a place where weddings, funerals, and meetings took place. Pastors also shared with Jones how burning a church destroys Black history by setting fire to the valuable records of family history and culture that are housed there.
The racist burnings of churches was not a new phenomenon in the United States. The burning of Black churches happened at an alarming rate following the Civil War and throughout the Civil Rights Movement. Reports by the U.S. Justice Department show that from 1990 to 1995, fifty Black and multiracial churches were burned. By 1997, that number doubled.
In May 1996, the National Council of Churches declared church burnings a national disaster and established the Burned Churches Fund to raise money for rebuilding efforts. The fund included Jewish, Muslim, and Roman Catholic partners who were committed to aiding churches and promoting long-term arson prevention measures. There was an outpouring of support for the churches that had been burned and the NCC quickly raised millions for rebuilding.
Also in 1996, the NCC partnered with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Congress of National Black Churches to establish the National Church Rebuilding Initiative. The partnership worked to coordinate federal loans, gathered material donations for rebuilding, assembled a network of volunteers to help rebuild, assisted churches in attaining new insurance policies, and supported racial justice work in communities.
In a NCC press release General Secretary Rev. Joan Brown Campbell shared, “Our short-term aim is to help the congregations continue their worship services and life as a congregation. Long term, the goal is to help them heal from the destruction of their building and to rebuild physically and spiritually. And we continue work to address the hatred that underlies attacks on houses of worship.”
The NCC coordinated these efforts by establishing the Burned Churches Project Office. Carolyn Scavella served as the Pastors Liaison Officer and worked directly with the pastors of burned churches to help them apply for funding and lead the rebuilding process in their communities. In a speech at the 1998 dedication of the Burned Churches Monument (Jackson, TN), Dr. Raymond Winbush said, “That the pastors, priests, and rabbis of the churches and members of theses congregations have continued to worship and continued to build, is a testimony of strength. We can learn much from your strength and we thank you.”
Throughout the project, over 156 churches that "were burned in hate were rebuilt in love” by congregations and thousands of volunteers. Members of the rebuilt churches joined together to create The National Coalition for Burned Churches and Community Empowerment (NCFBC). The NCFBC was established so that future victims of church burnings would have a network of support in place and so that members could advocate as a group to prevent future violence. Ed Donston, a rebuilding supervisor, shared, “What burned was a building, the church resides in the spirit of the people. And that spirit cannot be destroyed.”
The Burned Churches Project records have been processed and are now available for research at the Presbyterian Historical Society. Click here to access the guide to the collection. The records include files on the churches that were rebuilt through the project. These files contain correspondence with pastors, news clippings on church arsons, and project assessment interviews. Also included in the records are financial reports, minutes of the project’s Grants and Program Committee, programs and news releases from conferences on church burnings, and final reports published by the Burned Churches Project office.