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Gore says good has come from church burning tragedy

June 10, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ As the Clinton administration today announced the first federally guaranteed loans to rebuild burned churches, Vice President Al Gore called it the latest sign the nation can turn ``these acts of hatred into forces for good.″

``A lot of good has come out of this tragedy,″ he told the administration’s church fire task force and a group of ministers meeting at the Justice Department.

Noting that the task force has solved 35 percent of its 429 cases _ more than twice the normal 16 percent solution rate for arson, Gore turned his attention to rebuilding efforts. He said 25 churches have been rebuilt already and another 65 are in the process.

Habitat for Humanity, a private group that builds housing for the needy, estimates that 15,000 Americans across the country volunteered to help rebuild churches during the last year.

``1996 was a terrifying year. We witnessed a blaze of violence that seared the nation’s conscience,″ Gore said. ``The reaction has been quite heartening. We have done more than simply gained the upper hand against these terrorists. We’ve also grown stronger as a nation.″

Gore told of white and black churches, three miles apart in Fruitland, Tenn., that had never interacted before they were burned. But each congregation made the first donation to rebuild the other church, Gore said.

Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo announced that the first four loans with federal guarantees would go to predominantly black churches: Second New Light Church, in Bridgeport, Conn., $413,000; Greater Mount Zion Tabernacle in Portsmouth, Va., $180,000; Emmanuel Church in Decatur, Ala., $65,000; and the New Birth Temple Church in Shreveport, La., $10,000.

Cuomo said applications by 16 other churches for loan guarantees totalling $4.3 million are awaiting approval by lenders or the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Church Arson Prevention Act of 1996 provides $10 million in federal loan guarantees for churches, synagogues or mosques damaged by arson. The loan guarantees enable the places of worship to obtain below-market interest rates from private lenders and to extend repayment over 20 years.

In Fruitland, Tenn., Rev. Daniel Donaldson had a relatively easy time rebuilding his church after a December 1994 fire reduced it to rubble. For others, it’s been much harder.

``When you burn down a black church, you burn down the backbone of the community,″ said the Rev. Cathaleen Traylor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Dublin, Ga., which was destroyed by fire this past February.

Because the fire was ruled accidental, Ms. Traylor said the church won’t qualify for federal assistance. And without the church, she worries about the young people it worked hard to steer away from a life of crime and drugs.

``Without this church, we’re still trying to hold them in there, but it’s been hard,″ she added in an interview Monday.

Ms. Traylor was one of several pastors who took the microphone during a National Council of Churches meeting on racial justice to vent anger and frustration over stalled efforts to rebuild their houses of worship.

A task force appointed by President Clinton reported Sunday that federal and state authorities had arrested 199 suspects in 150 burnings or bombings of houses of worship of all denominations since Jan. 1, 1995. Of 429 fires investigated, 162 were at predominantly black churches.

The National Church Arson Task Force report found no wide-scale conspiracy in attacks on black churches.

Donaldson, pastor of Salem Missionary Baptist Church, described the breadth of his community’s support _ including donated pianos, organs and manual labor _ and told discouraged fellow pastors they shouldn’t give up.

``In our case, help was knocking on our door constantly,″ he said in an interview. ``We never solicited. We never asked .... The Lord has blessed us with an opportunity to ... go back into our church without a lot of the problems I hear other pastors are having.″

The National Council of Churches has raised $8.5 million since May 1996 and has awarded $4.7 million cash grants to 90 churches, most of which are predominantly black and located in the Southeast.

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