Where is all the concern?

Published 7:10 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2019

By Charles Qualls

My friend asked me a question last week that I couldn’t altogether answer. But, the moment he did, my conscience was convicted. In all the visceral and appropriate reaction to the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the world seemed to respond. Suddenly, news coverage flooded in and with that the dollars for rebuilding came, too.

Down in Georgia, a voice in my life that matters asked “Where is all the concern for the three black churches in Louisiana that burned in the last few weeks?” I realized as soon as I heard his question that it was a convicting one.

Three churches within one local Baptist association in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, burned down within about a week of each other. I had heard about one or two of the fires. But, three is not a coincidence. Three is a pattern of hate and arson, spread like wildfire to terrorize and intimidate.

Generations of African-American families have worshipped in these houses of faith. The first fire was on March 26 at St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre; the two others were at Greater Union Baptist Church (April 2) and Mount Pleasant Baptist (April 4).

Let me tell you about my friend Vinton. He is a young African American pastor down in middle Georgia. Actually, he is from my wife’s hometown. But, that’s not where I met him. A class from his seminary was spending a day at the church I served in Atlanta. Their class was having a lab day of sorts in a working church. The school we share is where he would eventually graduate with his master’s degree, and where I had received my doctorate.

Vinton and I happened to sit next to each other as we staff members hosted them for lunch that day. We got to know each other and “friended” each other on social media. We began to figure out where our worlds overlapped. I found that I could bounce questions off of Vinton about our culture.

In a small world, it turns out that my mother-in-law walks in a morning group with Vinton’s uncle. We have become friends that transcend social media. Vinton is a gifted young pastor, a smart man and a friend I am beyond fortunate to have in my life.

So it was that he asked his challenging question as all the hubbub arose around the Notre Dame fire. His intent wasn’t to take anything away from what happened in Paris. Instead, it was to ask why Americans hadn’t seemed to care much about the obvious hate crimes down in the South lately.

In 1996, Elizabeth and I took a week and went with a group from our church in North Carolina to help an African-American church rebuild from an arson fire. Sure enough, a wave of fires at black churches had burned across the South then. The magnitude of hate and evil in doing something like that astounds. We were a framing crew, and when we left the congregation had the interior and exterior walls standing for their renewed house of worship.

I realized then, as I do now, that we can’t solve every problem in a week of volunteer effort. But on a practical basis, we could restore their sacred building and get them one week closer to moving back in. While doing so, we could show them that not all white people are the enemy. We could put feet and legs to the notion that some within their world grieved with them, and that we all hoped for a better day.

Down in Louisiana, one man has been arrested for the hateful arson that burned the African-American churches. He is a white man. The encouraging thing is that a GoFundMe page for them that had been just piddling along suddenly took off after Notre Dame burned. With an initial goal of $1.8 million to spread among the three black churches’ needs, in the space of about four days the total suddenly surpassed $2.1 million. Still, the attention and horror that has shone on what happened in Louisiana has paled.

Will we ever have a day when Vinton and I live in one “world,” rather than overlapping ones? Will we live into a day when we just have churches, rather than ones we call black or white? Will we reach a point where we care about hurting people, regardless of color? We’ve got a long way to go. Such a long way to go.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.