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A Greater Fire: Standing Strong with African-American Churches

A Greater Fire: Standing Strong with African-American Churches

Two weeks ago, Charlotte’s Briar Creek Church was a victim of arson. It is less than three and half miles from my home. Their children’s choir sang at our synagogue's Martin Luther King Day service three years ago, and my kids were close friends with the kids of their former minister. I was moved to worship with them the first Sunday after the fire. 

In Charlotte, where the painful past of the Jim Crow South is still felt and racial mistrust can be high, I feel a religious mandate to “love the stranger” and to make that stranger into a neighbor and friend. With the freedom of Sundays without our own worship services, I also choose to help break down the racial barriers in our churches, fighting the maxim that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in our community of some 700 houses of worship.

Briar Creek Church is small. When I visited, there were about three dozen church members and a dozen visitors. I was moved by the optimism and faith of Senior Pastor Mannix Kinsey, Co-Pastor Rhonda Kinsey, and their entire congregation. With dance, song, preaching and prayer, they offered gratitude. Here were some of their messages:

  • Our children’s building was set aflame, but thank God no human life was lost.
  • An arsonist set a fire last Wednesday, but we will set a greater fire of spirit in our sanctuary.
  • We don’t need lights or power to worship God.
  • We are grateful for so many churches that are ready to help.
  • Tragedy will not stop us from being a unifying force.
  • We don’t have time to worry about whomever, whatever, or however the fire was set.

While Briar Creek Church does not have time to worry about whomever, whatever, or however the fire was set, we, as the Reform Jewish community, do have that time. We should worry not only about this fire but about the six other recent fires at African American churches in the South, including three confirmed arsons. While the fire in the church in Greeleyville, S.C., was likely set off by lightning, it nonetheless awakened memories of their 1995 fire, started by two members of the Ku Klux Klan.

When the sanctity of even one church in our country is shattered by racism and hatred, it shatters the sanctity and sanctuary of all of our houses of worship. How much more so should seven fires move us to action?

Praying with our African-American brothers and sisters is a start. This summer’s weekly conversations for healing and change coordinated by Mecklenburg Ministries (Charlotte’s interfaith organization) are a next step. But we need to do more. As a religious movement, we need to work towards achieving racial justice on every level: from supporting national, state, and local legislation protecting civil liberties to working together in congregational partnerships with the African-American community.

My congregation, Temple Beth El in Charlotte, has for decades taken part in a popular Martin Luther King Jr. Sermon Exchange with African-American churches. For several years, the broader Charlotte community embraced that vision and dozens of congregations engaged in an MLK sermon exchanges. For the coming year, we hope to see more frequent youth and parent exchanges among Charlotte houses of worship across lines of difference. We are starting with our Beth El youth and pursuing opportunities for youth exchanges in areas of worship and social action.

My prayer is that in the coming year, as a movement, we can build a greater fire for racial understanding and justice that will create light, warmth, and safe sanctuaries for all.

Rabbi Judith Schindler is an associate professor of Jewish studies and director of the Stan Greenspon Center for Peace and Social Justice at Queens University in Charlotte, NC.

Rabbi Judith Schindler
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