Church Arsons:rnThe Real Story?rnby Mark TooleyrnI t was one of the biggest stories of 1996:rnBlack churches were burning allrnacross the South, the seeming victims ofrna nationwide upsurge in racial hatred.rnTens of thousands of horrified Americansrnrushed to contribute mone’ toward thernreconstruction of black churches.rnWe now know there never was anvrnfirm evidence of a church-arson epidemicrnand no evidence of a racist conspiracyrnaimed at black churches. We also knov’rnthat a significant chunk of the millions ofrndollars raised for church reconstructionrnneer actual]}’ went for bricks and mortar.rnIt appears that the church-arson stor’,rnwhose primary promoter was the NationalrnCouncil of Churches (NCC), wasrnused —at least in part—as a fundraisingrntool to forestall the NCC’s impending financialrncollapse.rnAt the time of the story’s debut, the insurancernindustrv estimated that 490rnchurches typically burn in an averagernyear. Since an estimated 20 percent of allrnchurches are predominantly black, itrnwould be expected that close to 100 blackrnchurches would burn annually. Nobodvrnthen (or since) e’er claimed that anywherernnear 100 black churches burnedrnin a single year.rnThis discrepancy did not deter thernNCC, which successfully touted thernchurch-arson story to the media in 1996.rnThe NCC quickly established the BurnedrnChurches Fund, which became the mostrnsuccessful fundraising effort for burnedrnchurches. The fund included not onlyrnthe NCC’s 30-plus Protestant denominationsrnbut also the U.S. Catholic Conferencernand Jewish groups.rnThe Burned Churches Fund was fantasticallyrnsuccessful, raising over $10.8rnmillion in cash, along with at least $3.4rnmillion more in in-kind donations. Butrnof the $10.8 million, only $6.6 millionrncan be accounted for in grants for churchrnconstruction. The NCC has not fully explainedrnwhat happened to the remainingrn$4.2 million.rnIn late 1999, when the Burned ChurchesrnFund was shut down, the NCC’s ownrnauditor questioned the transfer of the remainingrn$330,000 to the NCC’s generalrnadministration. The NCC has beenrnwracked by deficit spending for years. Inrn1997, it suffered a $1.6 million deficit; inrn1998, it endured a $1.5 million loss. Lastrnyear, when the Burned Churches Fund’srnfundraising had virtually come to a halt,rnthe NCC fell short nearly $4 million,rnprecipitating a major reorganization forrnAmerica’s oldest and largest ecumenicalrnorganization. In just a few years, thernNCC’s reserves (once $15 million) havernbeen spent down to three million dollars.rnThe NCC had originally claimed thatrn15 percent of the Burned ChurchesrnFund would go toward administrationrnand programs to combat the “root causes”rnof racism. This provision set off fearsrnamong conservative critics that churchreconstructionrnmoney would fund leftwingrnpolitical activities. They were right:rnSome did. But in the end, most of thernrerouted nronev seems to ha’e gone towardrna far more banal activity: proppingrnup the NCC’s fiiiling administrative infrastructure.rnIncluding in-kind assistance —mostlyrnconstruction materials—the fund raisedrnabout $14.2 million; 15 percent wouldrnbe $2.4 million. This contrasts with thern$4.2 million that appears to have beenrnspent on non-construction activities, orrnabout 38 percent of the cash raised.rnLast year, NCC General SecretaryrnJoan Brown Campbell, who had beenrnthe Burned Churches Fund’s chiefrncheerleader, retired under a cloud amidrngrowing deficits and financial upheaval.rnThe N C C ‘ S largest member, the LInitedrnMethodist Church, eveir briefly cut off itsrnfunding in an effort to compel the NCCrnto repair its tattered finances and cleanrnup its books. Over the last year, several ofrnthe largest member denominations havernbeen asked to help with the NCC’s multimillion-rndollar bailout.rnStill trv’ing to repair the damage, NCCrnGeneral Secretary Bob Edgar is cuttingrn17 positions from its staff of 64, and hernhas proposed dissolving the NCC in favorrnof a larger ecumenical umbrella thatrnwould include evangelicals and RomanrnCatholics. Some NCC insiders have privatelyrnraised the possibilit}’ that the N C Crnwill collapse in the next year or Kvo. Thatrncollapse might have happened severalrnyears ago if it weren’t for the moneyrnraised for the Burned Churches Fund.rnAlthough some money from thernBurned Churches Fund was to havernbeen spent on anti-racism programs, administrationrnappears to have eaten up thernbulk of the money. The NCC hadrnpromised a series of anti-racism conferencesrnaround the country. Only a fewrnwere held, drawing small crowds,rndate, the NCC has refused to conductrnaudit of the Burned Churches Fund,rnfinal budget report was given to tlrnNCC’s General Assembh’ last year, butrnaccounted for only $6.4 million in granrnfor church reconstruction. It made nrnmention of the $3.4 million in in-kincrngifts, nor of the $2.6 million apparentirnspent on overhead and political action.rnMeanwhile, the NCC’s incendiarrnclaims about black church arsons continuernto be undermined by more responsiblerndocumentation. In its 2000 annualrnreport, the National Church Arson TaskrnForce found that most churches sufferingrnarson have been white, not black. Andrnno more than ten percent of those arrestedrnfor arson have shovn enough evidencernof racial motivation to merit prosecutionrnfor hate crimes.rnIn a more comprehensive report onrnoverall numbers, the National Fire ProtectionrnAssociation (NFPA) estimatesrnthat church arsons increased from 450 inrn1995 to 570 in 1996. (The NFPA doesrnnot analyze the racial composition ofrnburned churches.) The increase tookrnplace within an overall decrease inrnchurch arsons over the last 20 years. Thernnumber for 1996 is in fact identical to thernnumber of church arsons estimated tornhave occurred in 1993. And arsons forrneach of the 12 preceding years were evenrnhigher, decreasing from a high of 1,320rnin 1981. In 1997, the last year for whichrnan estimate has been made, the NFPArnbelieves there were 390 arsons, a continuationrnof the downward trend.rnThe adocates of the church-arson storyrnclaim the upswing in attacks on blackrnchurches began in the early 1990’s —arnclaim that the NFPA’s report would seemrnto refute. The only annual increase overrnthe last 20 years in overall church arsonsrnoccurred in 1996, when the media h}’pernbegan. It is not a stretch to speculate thatrncopycat crimes could be the explanation.rnThe federal task force, along withrnsome media outlets, has reported that thernmost prolific church arsonist over the lastrnfive years has not been a racist but a practicingrnSatanist. Jay Scott Ballinger pleadedrnguilty in July 2000 to torching 26rnchurches in at least eight states betweenrn1994 and 1999. He and his girlfriendrnhave claimed responsibility for attacks onrn50 churches. So far, there is no wordrnfrom the NCC or other church groupsrnabout initiating any programs against thernfollowers of Satan, who apparently arernnot a concern to them.rn44/CHRONICLESrnrnrn