The rash of rural church burnings in Alabama became personal to me this week. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the First Baptist Church of Dancy was damaged by smoke and fire. The good work of the volunteer fire department in the community saved the building.
About six years ago I attended the dedication of the new church building at Dancy. A relatively small African-American congregation had made great sacrifice to build a nice brick building in which to worship.
It was a grand occasion. A banner across the front of the auditorium declared that the church was in its 150th year.
The painting in the baptistry caught my attention. It is one of very few I have ever seen that had human figures depicted in it.
Since then I have attended services there from time to time. I have always been graciously received and extended the “pulpit hospitality,” which African-American churches offer to visiting ministers.
I have worked with the church in tracing its history. It seems to be the remnant of Providence Baptist Church, a bi-racial congregation that had 400 members at the time of the Civil War.
As best as can be determined, the newly emancipated freedmen separated from the former slaveholders and formed a church that took the name New Providence. In time the congregation relocated in the whistle-stop town of Dancy, adopting the name of its new location.
The old Providence church was served in the 1840s and 1850s by such notables as Basil Manly, Jr., who would later be among the founding professors of The Southern Baptist Seminary, and E. B. Teague, who served as president of the Home Mission Board.
The remnant at Dancy has continued the tradition of finding and encouraging good leadership. The current pastor, Walter Hawkins, serves bi-vocationally. He was well-mentored by the late James Ellis at First African Baptist in Tuscaloosa. The sons and daughters of Dancy Baptist have become teachers, preachers and community leaders.
Dancy is a Missionary Baptist church connected to the Northbound Bethlehem District Association, but it has good fraternal relationships with the Southern Baptists of Pickens Baptist Association.
An expression of this relationship was a block party/health fair/one-day revival on the church grounds sponsored by Pickens Association in 2002. More that 200 persons attended. One good thing to come out of the tragedy of the fire is initiation of plans to repeat the event this summer.
Peering into the damaged sanctuary of the church, I thought about how much work will have to be done to restore it.
I also thought about my ancestral home church, Hopewell Baptist near Sedalia, Mo. It was burned to the ground by vandals some 10 years ago, but is now rebuilt and is stronger than ever. The community rallied to it, and God blessed it. I prayed the same for Dancy.
I am impressed with the attitude of the pastor and the church leaders I have visited the past two days. They are praying for those who set the fire. Realizing their sin-sickness, they are praying for the transformation of the arsonists.
The church members are, of course, also praying that God will make it possible for them to repair their church house and continue the more than a century-and-a-half ministry of the Dancy Baptist Church.
Our association has received many inquiries from churches and associations desiring to help. We have directed these to the pastor of the church and moderator of the district association, who are the ones to take the lead.
An additional serious problem has appeared in the burnings, however. A small number of persons are exploiting the fear of many folk by claiming the fires are a sign that Christians are increasingly being persecuted. They appear at disaster sites to do “sound bites” and offer to be our champions and protectors.
Of course, they need money to do this for us, so we are encouraged to send generous contributions to them. I think that Jesus would have something to say to them that they would find unpleasant. It would sound much like his words in Matthew 23.
We frankly do not know the motivation of the church burners. That information is needed before Christians can draw any conclusions. Meanwhile we must trust in God, pray for sinners and bear one another’s burdens.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church leadership, Carrollton, Ala.