Black Christians and Muslims unite around burned churches

(Photo courtesy of NNPA)
(Photo courtesy of NNPA)

In the last week of June, as the nation was still mourning and mulling over the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., seven other Black churches across the South went up in flames.

Solidarity came out of the ashes.

Since July 2, the Respond With Love campaign has raised more than $66,000 and counting toward rebuilding the churches. The Muslim-led fundraiser is a joint effort between Ummah Wide, a global digital media storytelling organization for and by young Muslims; MuslimARC, which combats racism within the Muslim diaspora; and the Arab American Association of New York.

As the reports of the fires spread to the masses, Chicago resident Faatimah Knight and her friend David Craun, founder and executive director of Ummah Wide, felt they had to do something. They began a fundraiser on, hoping to raise $10,000 to contribute to a general outpouring. Over the next day, Knight, Craun, and leaders of the other groups teamed up.

“I feel this was racially motivated crime, and being a Black person, I naturally feel implicated. Even though I’m not Christian, I’m still Black – I’m still a part of that target group,” Knight says, adding that she also has Christian friends and family to worry about.

A flurry of media coverage and the month of Ramadan, which began the day after the Mother Emmanuel attack, boosted the campaign’s profile. In 12 hours, donations swelled past the original $10,000 goal. The bar was raised to $30,000, then to $50,000, and currently to $75,000, as donations keep coming in.

“It’s a time of year when Muslims are hyper-aware of their faith and their duties to others, their duties to God,” Knight explains. “At Ramadan, Muslims spend so much time at mosque. It’s a time when we value our place of worship more than any other time. I can definitely empathize with someone having that taken away.”

Since the September 11 attacks, mosques and Muslim communities have remained targets of racial and religious hatred. During Ramadan 2012, an arsonist who identified as a conservative Christian Iraq veteran burned the Islamic Center in Joplin, Mo. to the ground. It was his second attack that summer on the same center.

In April, former Tennessee Congressional candidate, Robert Doggert, was arrested for planning a violent, burning-shooting attack on a Muslim community in upstate New York. In May, “patriots” in Dallas and Phoenix launched Muhammad drawing contests and armed demonstrations outside of mosques.

Namira Islam, executive director of Detroit-based MuslimARC, says the church burnings remind her of both the attacks on mosques and the history of Black church burnings and bombings.

“Our mosques have been attacked. There are mosques that have been burned down, too. In that sense, all of our fates are intertwined. It’s happening again – knowing the history behind…Black church burnings in the U.S. It’s outright terror,” she says.

“When you think about fire, something like arson…. It’s a hate crime. Obviously, there is a legal definition involved, but the act is very hateful.”

Black churches have been burned, bombed, or otherwise threatened regularly since Emancipation, with spikes during the Civil Rights Movement and again during the 1990s – to the point that President Bill Clinton created the now-defunct National Church Arson Task Force.

One study published in the official journal of the National Association of Social Workers found more than 300 racially motivated church bombings or burnings in the 1960s, and an additional 200 between 1989 and 1996. After President Obama’s election in 2008, two White men were convicted of burning down Macedonia Church of God in Christ church in Springfield, Mass. in response.

Three of the seven torched Black churches have been declared arson: College Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church in Knoxville, Tenn., God’s Power Church of Christ in Macon, Ga., and Briar Creek Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, N.C. None are being investigated as hate crimes.

The FBI says a lightning strike started the fire at Mount Zion AME in Greeleyville, S.C., the last of the seven churches lost. In 1995, two Ku Klux Klan members burned it down; when it was rebuilt a year later, Clinton visited and made a speech on racism.

The fire at Fruitland Presbyterian Church in Fruitland, Tenn. was also attributed to lightning. The cause of Glover Grove Baptist Church’s fire, in Warrenville, S.C. remains a mystery. At Greater Miracle Temple Apostolic Holiness Church in Tallahassee, Fla., investigators say an electric accident after a thunderstorm felled a tree and downed power lines was to blame.

Knight says that the shared experience of being targeted isn’t the only connection between Muslims and Black Christians.

“[The Quran says] you’ll find some of the closest people to you are Christians, because they are humble and not arrogant,” she says, referencing Quran verse 5:82. “In our own Scripture, God praises another group for their character. Trying to live out those words is important.”

In addition to the Respond With Love fundraiser, the Christ Church Cathedral in St. Louis, Mo. has launched a national fundraising effort that has earned almost $160,000 so far and counting. Simultaneously, nearly 200 churches, mosques, and synagogues around the country have also pledged to take up a special offering this month in connection with the campaign.

Some of the Respond with Love donations went toward floral arrangements for each of the surviving family members of the nine people killed at Emanuel AME Church. MuslimARC is also providing educational resources on the history of White supremacist terrorism against Black churches, and other opportunities for those who cannot donate but want to help. Ummah Wide members, including Knight, are discussing the possibility of visiting one of the churches to help with construction.

Knight and Islam say they have been in minimal contact with some of the leadership of the affected churches, but that the congregations are still processing the tragedies and figuring out logistics. In the meantime, the organizers are deciding how best to distribute the funds once the campaign closes on July 18.

“Churches are places where God’s name is remembered. When a place where people praise God is taken away, that creates a void,” says Knight. “I didn’t want [the fires] to be the end of the story.”

Thanks to NNPA for sharing this story with us. Connect with Jazelle Hunt on Twitter at @JazelleAH.