THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1996, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Monday, May 6, 1996 TAG: 9605060068 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: BY ROBERT LITTLE, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: RICHMOND LENGTH: Medium: 77 lines
There's nothing very threatening about the Glorious Church of God in Christ, a gray stone temple across from a small park west of downtown. Certainly not Maudell Dillard, the 88-year-old pastor.
``All they do in a church is sing and pray,'' said Dillard, reached on the phone that church members provide for personal prayer and counseling. ``They don't do anything destructive or threatening. Nothing that you would think could make people want to tear it down.''
Today, the church is boarded up and charred, with orange signs warning of falling debris. White, letter-sized leaflets, faded and crinkled from the weather, are stapled to the outside and tell the story everyone in the neighborhood already knows: ``Suspected arson,'' they read. ``Reward offered.''
But the story doesn't stop there.
Federal investigators say the Feb. 21 Richmond fire is one of 23 in the Southeast - all of them suspected arsons, all in churches whose membership is predominantly African-American.
Officials have no tangible evidence that racism is behind the Richmond fire. But with all the suspicious Southern church fires, the most obvious similarity is the color of the church members' skin. And that was a characteristic too disturbing to ignore.
``Agents really found no evidence of conspiracy or any one group or individual who would seem responsible for all these, but the similarities are apparent,'' said Bill Dunham, resident agent in charge of the Richmond Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms office.
``There's been a lot of pressure brought upon investigators by church leaders around the country and others to find out everything we can. So we want to make sure we do everything we can to keep the list from growing,'' he said.
Local police and federal agents won't say much about the Richmond fire. They don't want to publicize details that only the arsonist would know.
But investigators quickly ruled out any accidental causes. The blaze started just inside the front door, in an area that would be difficult to ignite. Some type of accelerant seemed to have been used.
Neighbors discovered the fire at about 7:30 a.m. Several of the 40 or so active members of the Pentecostal church arrived quickly. They could only pray and watch it burn.
For religious leaders throughout Richmond, the fire ignited anger and grief. Three synagogues in the city were vandalized about the same time. The lieutenant governor, the state attorney general and city government and civic officials called a news conference to denounce the incidents, and promise to investigate and prosecute.
Some called the crimes evidence of the racism that still festers in Virginia. Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. drew a parallel to Nazi Germany.
Richmond Mayor Leonidas B. Young, an African-American, is a minister at Fourth Baptist Church on Church Hill.
He said it's not just a matter of brick and mortar.
``The church building is for them the symbol of Christ,'' he said. ``Though it doesn't destroy their faith it certainly has an impact on them for a long time . . . Fortunately, in all the situations I've seen, the congregations seem to come back stronger. The fire brings people together.''
Members of the Glorious Church of God in Christ left it to the police to draw conclusions. If hate is to blame, there's no point stoking it with anger and hate of their own, they said.
``I'm concerned about it in this way: I wish they could put their hands on the people who did it and put them away,'' said Dillard.
``But there's no use trying to get angry. We had to just turn it over to the Lord.'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
On Feb. 21, Richmond's Glorious Church of God in Christ was damaged
by fire, one of 23 suspected arsons of Southern black churches.
KEYWORDS: ARSON BLACK CHURCH AFRICAN-AMERICAN