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Fires At Black Churches Spur Discussion On Security, Racism

Lisa Worf

The Charleston shootings and a recent spate of fires at African American churches, including one in Charlotte, have made a lot of black congregations uneasy. Many of them are now re-examining their security. Members of several faith communities met last night to discuss their concerns.

Congresswoman Alma Adams paid a visit to The Creek Baptist Church in East Charlotte Thursday. It’s been just over a week since the education building beside the sanctuary went up in flames. You can still smell it in the air.      

“It’s a hateful thing.  Clearly, it’s a mean-spirited thing. Whether we want to label it a hate crime....” Adams trailed off.    

Charlotte Mecklenburg Police haven’t, but they do say it’s clearly arson. It looks like arson is to blame for at least three out of seven recent church fires throughout the South. One is thought to be an accident and two others triggered by lightning.  

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
The Creek's Pastor Mannix Kinsey says he's glad no one was hurt in the fire.

“To think that someone in this community would do this, I find it hard to believe,” says The Creek’s Pastor Mannix Kinsey.

He has always felt the diverse neighborhood around the church appreciated the congregation. Now there’s a police presence at church. 

“We’ve asked if possibly the police department can be here with us while we’re here and just make it safer for our parishioners that we have here,” says Kinsey.    

Many predominately black congregations have security on their minds. Lucille Batts attends Friendship Missionary Baptist Church on the city’s northwest side. 

“I’m concerned, but I’m not paranoid. And I know we do have some things in place at my church,” says Batts. 

It was partly that concern that brought her to a discussion hosted by the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP Thursday evening. 

“Rather than us to act out of a state of panic and fear, we thought it best to bring the experts in,” said Reverend Dwayne Walker.

He welcomed a mixed crowd of about seventy people to his church Little Rock AME Zion in uptown for the discussion. He was joined by someone from the Charlotte Fire Department and Charlotte Mecklenburg Police.

Credit Lisa Worf / WFAE
Rev. Dwayne Walker welcomes about 70 people to Little Rock AME Zion for the discussion.

There were a lot of questions about making churches more secure to protect them from arson and people bent on killing.

Mary Cherry introduced herself as a member of CN Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church.    

“I want to appreciate everything that you said. I have my notes to take back to church,” said Cherry.

Her church had discussed the possibility of conducting emergency drills. But she said the congregation had mixed feelings about that. 

“What do you think about drills in the church from time to time?” Cherry asked. 

Detective Garry McFadden urged them to do it as a precaution. 

“You must have the drill. You must see how everybody reacts,” he said. 

Members of big churches that have long had security protocols in place offered to help smaller churches set up ones. So did some representatives of the Nation of Islam. The pastor of a mainly white church asked Reverend Walker if organizing night watches would help.

“I know there are a lot of white people like me who would like to join in an effort like that. We want to do something to help. Tell us what we can do,” she said.

“We appreciate that question,” replied Walker. “I’m frustrated like you. You want to do something, but you want to make sure you’re taking the appropriate steps, something that is going to be meaningful, that is going to be practical. Out of panic you don’t want to do something just for the sake of doing it.” 

The Charlotte NAACP’s President Corine Mack doesn’t want people to assume all the recent church fires are hate crimes. She said it’s important to look at investigators’ reports, but it’s clear, she said, racism is still strong.  She told the crowd safety measures are important, but there’s more than one way to be safe:   

“What I’m asking is that we don’t just leave this room with information around how we keep our churches safe because we should and homes safe because we should, but we become pro-active as a unified community to stop the violence, to stop the hate, to stop the division and segregation” 

Mack said that’ll take self-examination, forging friendships across racial lines, and some difficult conversations.