Heat and Light

The editor of Teaching Tolerance reflects on recent church burnings.

It was a long hot summer. Western farmers feared another Dust Bowl.

Olympic athletes vied for glory under the Georgia sun. Candidates for the White House tested their own kind of heat-resistance. And a succession of American churches went up in flames.

Like most stories that sweep the headlines, the church burnings have produced a broad range of response and interpretation: "Remember 16th Street," some say, comparing these incidents to the 1963 church bombing that killed four Birmingham children. "White churches are burning, too," others caution. Some reports confirming electrical combustion or lightning strikes bear a hint of disappointment. For a few people on both sides of the "racial divide," a terrorist campaign against African American churches would be just the thing to clear the post-O.J. air.

A reporter from the Northeast called one morning to talk about an article she was writing about the effects of the fires on children in the displaced congregations. "What can we tell children about racism and violence?" she asked. "What do we say when they ask, 'Why?'"

As we thought aloud about these and other questions, some partial answers began to emerge. We talked about the age-old role of religious institutions in making sense of evil in the world. We talked about the unique historic refuge of African American sanctuaries.

We recalled the ministers, parishioners and others who were seeking to heal: "A church is more than a building," declares a young black preacher to an open-air multi-racial gathering. A vanload of Indiana teenagers sing camp songs after a hard day of reconstruction work on a west Alabama chapel. A white youth who confessed to arson attends a Bible-study meeting at the church he tried to destroy.

Just a few days after our conversation, another incident seemed to bring the prospect of healing full-circle. When Klan members held a rally near her town in late June, Keeshia Thomas, an 18-year-old black resident of Ypsilanti, Mich., joined a group of counter-demonstrators. Before the rally began, several protesters attacked a white man wearing a jacket that displayed the Confederate flag.

Keeshia Thomas shared the moral outrage of the attackers. The ideas the Klan marchers represented were just as repulsive to her as to those hitting the man. But her instinct was different: She threw herself between the man and his assailants, offering a human shield.

Whether from their parents or friends, or from television, or from overheard conversations, the children of the burned churches -- and their peers around the country -- will learn this narrow truth: There are people who hate others because of the color of their skin.

In the face of such repugnance, the challenge for parents, teachers, journalists, politicians and all others who directly or indirectly affect the lives of children is to generate light, not heat. Let us teach, by history and our own actions, a larger truth -- that liberty and equality do not bow to hate, fear or even vengeance.


Illustration of person holding and looking at laptop.

New Virtual Workshops Are Available Now!

Registrations are now open for our 90-minute virtual open enrollment workshops. Explore the schedule, and register today—space is limited!

Sign Up!