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OUT FRONT: ‘God Have Mercy’ _ Another Black Church Goes Up in Flames

June 10, 1996

GREENVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Curtis Kennedy shook his head as he watched the 10 o’clock news, disgusted at what he saw. Black churches in the South were going down in flames, the news footage showed, and arsonists were to blame.

``God have mercy on whoever did that,″ Kennedy, a 34-year-old nursing assistant, recalls saying to himself. Then he went to bed.

But just as he was drifting off to sleep, the phone rang. Come quick! a friend told him. Their own church was on fire.

Kennedy ran to his car and sped to the New Light House of Prayer, the church where he’d helped paint Fellowship Hall and install new wooden pews, the church where he was married in February.

It was near midnight Sunday, and the A-frame church with the tall white spire was smoldering under gushing fire hoses. Fellowship Hall, a yellow brick section at the back of the church, where he’d danced with his wife at their wedding reception, was gutted, its roof gone. The sanctuary where they held Sunday services, faced in handsome gray stone, was spared the flames but was covered in soot.

It reminded Kennedy of his early childhood, those days when black churches were burned by bigotry.

``That was back then in the ’60s. This is 1996,″ Kennedy said Monday afternoon, standing behind the yellow police tape with fellow church members who had come to commiserate.

``There should be a change in the way people think about things.″

Three young suspects are in custody, two white men and a Hispanic man. Authorities believe the fire is an act of random vandalism but won’t say whether they suspect racism as a motive. But some blacks say they wouldn’t be surprised if hatred had torched the church.

``When you burn down a black church, it’s definitely a racist statement,″ said the Rev. Lee Hardmon, a black minister at nearby United Baptist Church.

Tyshia Thomas, whose grandfather, the Rev. Chester Thomas, runs the New Light House of Prayer, says racism is no stranger to Greenville. At the turn of the century, blacks were lynched in the town square or tarred and feathered and dragged through town.

For decades, a banner draped across a downtown main street read ``Welcome to Greenville: blackest land, whitest people.″ When electricity came to Greenville, the sign was converted to a neon arch spanning the street.

Hunt County Judge Steve Shipp, president of the local historical society, said the slogan referred to the town’s rich, black earth, good for raising cotton, and the purity of its people. But he understands how blacks thought it was offensive. The sign was torn down in the late 1960s.

``I don’t see a major problem here,″ Shipp said. The fire, he added, ``was not something I would expect in Greenville.″

But Thomas disagreed, saying prejudice runs deep.

``Nothing has changed,″ Thomas said. ``I have experienced a lot of hatred.″

She moved from Mississippi to Texas a couple of years ago, hoping racism wouldn’t be so bad here. But this north Texas town of 32,000, home to about 20 black churches, has proven to be no different, she said.

Hours before the fire, Greenville officials say, vandals spray painted ``KKK″ on a wall at a local car wash and carved the Ku Klux Klan initials into some greens at the city golf course.

Then, at 4 a.m. Monday, flames broke out at a second black church, about a mile from New Light House of Prayer. A small section of a back exterior wall was scorched.

The three suspects were arrested before that fire started, but police said they would be questioned about it and the other vandalism.

They were stopped while driving a car that reportedly matched the description of a vehicle neighbors noticed in the driveway of the New Light House of Prayer shortly before the fire was reported.

Bradley Blankenship and Juan Fernando Avila, both 18, were arrested on underage drinking charges; Mark Gross, 22, was held for failure to show a driver’s license and making alcohol available to minors. As of late Monday, they had not been charged in connection with the church fire.

More than 30 black churches in the South have been burned since January 1995. More than 130 agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and 100 FBI agents are working the investigations.

At the New Light House of Prayer, associate Pastor Wanda Jeffery shied away from terming the fire racist, preferring to look to the future and a likely rebuilding.

``We’re going to keep going,″ she said. ``The church is really within you, the temple is within you. You can always replace a building.″

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