Heeding a call this week from President Clinton, religious leaders nationwide said they plan to speak out from the pulpit against racism and offer aid to African American churches destroyed by a string of arsons throughout the South.
In a speech Wednesday at the rededication of Mount Zion AME Church in Greeleyville, S.C., Clinton suggested that "the false idols of hate and division" were at the root of a fire that destroyed the church in June 1995, one of about 30 fires to hit black churches in the past 18 months.
"We must recognize that this is everybody's problem," Clinton said at the new site of the South Carolina church. "Every citizen, every minister and religious leader in this country should be speaking out against this violence."
Many African American pastors have said that they believe racial tension in the United States has been a factor in the church arsons. Authorities have acknowledged that some of the fires were probably racially motivated.
Across the country, religious leaders--some of whom did not hear Clinton's speech--echoed his sentiments that Americans must not only support churches that have been victimized, but speak up when a person of any race is put down.
"When there are jokes against specific ethnic groups or certain colors of skin, as believers we should stand and say that is wrong," said Pedro Martinez, pastor of Iglesia Cristiana Amor (Christian Love Church) in Miami. "When somebody needs help, we shouldn't be looking to see is this person from my own ethnic group, [but] does this person need my help."
Martinez said he plans to address the issue of the church fires from his pulpit Sunday.
"Every Christian should get involved and stand for justice," he said. "If Christianity has nothing to do with justice, I'm getting out of it."
Religious leaders of other faiths said the fires will be the subject of their sermons as well.
"I'll be talking about it," said Mubasher Ahmad, regional missionary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Baltimore. "Our people who come to the mosque . . . believe in the Koran as the word of God, and the Koran is very specific that we have to protect religious liberty and the religious institutions regardless of what religions they belong to."
Rabbi Gerald Wolfe, the leader of a Conservative congregation in Penn Valley, Pa., said many religious leaders in the 1930s remained silent as Nazis began to persecute Jews and others leading up to the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were killed.
"We should learn from that," he said.
Wolfe, who served as a rabbi in Charleston, S.C., during the desegregation era of the 1950s, believes all clergy should speak about what he calls "a horrible sense of regression in our country from what we have achieved."
Wolfe said he has addressed the topic in his pulpit and will again.
"Absolutely anyone who has a religious position or anyone who has a position that purports to be a moral one should respond to it because it's a stain . . . on the record of our country," said Wolfe, the leader of about 1,500 families who attend Har Zion Temple outside Philadelphia.
As clergy step into their pulpits this weekend to make individual proclamations against the fires and racial hatred, organizations are continuing to issue statements and make plans to help the affected churches with fund drives and rebuilding efforts.
Quaker and Mennonite groups have set up work camps to help rebuild some churches in Alabama. Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization based in Americus, Ga., also plans to aid in the rebuilding efforts.
Delegates to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, held in New Orleans this week, passed a resolution Wednesday condemning the "despicable and abominable acts of lawlessness and racism" and pledged support to African American Christians affected by the fires.
The National Assn. of Evangelicals and the National Black Evangelical Assn. have asked World Relief, the assistance arm of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, to start a fund to help the churches rebuild. The Christian Coalition plans to ask its members to offer alternative worship sites for burned churches and to volunteer for neighborhood watches in areas where churches have been vandalized or burned.
Three religious groups--the American Jewish Committee, the National Council of Churches and the U.S. Catholic Conference--plan to launch a campaign to raise money for reconstruction of the churches, said Arthur Berger, spokesman for the American Jewish Committee.
The Rev. Dean Moe, senior pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C., said the often segregated worship services throughout the nation have not helped in the shaping of positive attitudes about race.
"I wish they would . . . with God's help . . . break down these barriers between racial divisions in churches and really celebrate humanity--gays, lesbians, rich, poor, refugees, blacks, whites . . . Hispanics," Moe said.
But he said religious speech and images are not sufficient for shaping America's attitudes.
"Pulpits aren't enough," he said. "You've got to try to reach the public that isn't in church. . . . But to stand in unity as Christians, whatever our race, our location, our status, I think is extremely important."
Clergyman such as Rabbi Michael Cohen of Manchester Center, Vt., who heads the national group of rabbis affiliated with Judaism's Reconstructionist movement, said it is important for the arsons to be discussed in homes and schools as well as in religious settings.
Americans need to realize that resolving racial tensions is a "long-term process," he said. "It's going to take clearly another generation of activist teaching, of sensitizing people."