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Church Spirit Rises Despite Arson Attack

Burnings: Members and supporters join joyous revival under tent for first Sunday service since destruction.

September 16, 1996|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — In a modest interracial neighborhood 10 minutes south of the Capitol, two large rosebushes are blossoming against the backdrop of the charred ruins of the New Home Missionary Baptist Church.

On Sunday, members of the small, predominantly African American congregation assembled under a tent on the church grounds to sing, pray and demonstrate that, like the pink and red roses, their spirits have flourished in the wake of the latest intentionally set blaze to strike predominantly black churches across the nation.

"We're very much alive . . . we have risen," shouted the Rev. John C. Rogers, the church pastor. "We know that Satan can't defeat us," he told several hundred enthusiastic members and supporters from throughout Northern California who gathered to show their outrage over the fire that engulfed the sanctuary early last Monday.

For months, predominantly black churches in the South have endured a wave of vandalism, burnings and fire bombings reminiscent of the attacks that took place during the height of the anti-integration backlash of the 1960s. The New Home fire is the first of the recent series of blazes to occur in California, authorities indicated.

Federal and local fire investigators quickly determined that the Sacramento blaze involved arson because evidence of a chemical accelerant was discovered at the scene. But authorities said no motive for the fire has been established and no graffiti or other signs of racial motivation were found.

"There's no sign of a hate crime on this," said Pete Ureea, resident agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

Sunday's service marked a grieving and renewal for the congregation, which just hours before the fire had celebrated its 31st anniversary and was amid an expansion project. Under drizzly skies, worshipers--from infants to a 106-year-old woman--passed signs of the fire and its aftermath: tiny, charred children's chairs; a blackened filing cabinet; placards announcing a $7,500 reward being offered for information leading to any suspects; handwritten signs soliciting donations, and yellow tape used by fire authorities to mark off a crime scene.

"This is like attending a funeral, burying that building that is no longer there," said Frederick Holmes, chairman of the congregation's board of trustees. "It's like burying a loved one."

But the atmosphere was anything but somber.

The service was a mixture of a joyous revival meeting; a way for others to show solidarity with the church; healing for church members struggling to cope with the devastation, and a way to say goodbye to the old church building.

Throughout the working-class neighborhood of single-family homes and light manufacturing shops, the sound of clapping and singing filled the morning air. Clutching Bibles, worshipers seemed intent on finding good in the tragedy.

"Woke up this morning with my mind straight on Jesus," the congregation sang out.

When the sun burst through the overcast sky, a thunderclap like a roar of applause erupted from the crowd.

The cover of the service program bore images of such well-known African Americans as Dr. Martin Luther King. On the cover were the words of a psalm: "Thy testimonies have I taken as a heritage forever: for they are the rejoicing of my heart."

Still, the church, which plans to temporarily use facilities provided by other congregations as well as a local community center, faces the task of rebuilding. Although insurance is expected to cover $300,000, the cost of rebuilding has been estimated to be as much as $600,000.

Donations, however, have been pouring in. One FM radio station received pledges Friday for $12,000. Members of other churches and synagogues also are being urged to send contributions. As of Friday, the largest check was $10,000 from the Capitol Christian Center in suburban Sacramento.

"The support we've been getting is great," said trustee Holmes. "It renews your faith in humanity and this community as a whole."

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