Black Church Destroyed By Fire the Morning After Obama’s Election

black-church-burned-obama-election.jpgAs Election Night made way for a new day, a pastor named Bryant
Robinson Jr. clicked off his television to accept a sleep of sweet
promise. His mostly black congregation now had two blessings awaiting
it in 2009: the inauguration of the first African-American president
and the finished construction of a new church.

Give praise.

He could not have been asleep two hours before
his telephone rang. It was his brother Andrew, whose home abuts the
blessed construction site. “They’re burning our church,” shouted Andrew
Robinson, who still doesn’t know why he said “they.”

bishop-bryant-robinson-jr.jpg

Soon Bishop
Bryant Robinson, pastor of the Macedonia Church of God in Christ, was
standing at the grassy edge, as firefighters sprayed arcs of water
meant not to save the building but to contain a fire clearly set. Black
embers the size of fists shot skyward, only to float down like broken
pieces of the cold New England night.

Someone eased him into a
chair — he is 71, with bad knees and high blood pressure — and placed a
blanket around his weary shoulders. He stayed there past dawn, when
this new day’s light revealed a smoldering test of faith: a skeleton of
scorched steel and a cracked foundation upon which a church could no
longer be built.

Sitting there, stunned, emotional, Bishop
Robinson sought context for what had just occurred: a black president
is elected, a black church is burned. He thought of dreams realized and
dreams denied.

“It was so close I could taste it,” he says. “I could just see it.”

You could say that dream began more than 60 years ago, the moment his
father, Bryant Robinson Sr., left Alabama for a place where his
children could drink from fountains of their choice. As soon as he
arrived in Springfield he wanted to flee, so foreign was the place. But
his train ticket, courtesy of a local pastor, was one way, so he
settled in this community known as the City of Homes and sent for his
family.

Though working as a parking attendant and then as an
assembly-line worker, he found his true calling in the Church of God in
Christ. Eventually the church’s revered leader, C. H. Mason, resolved
tension within the Springfield flock by directing the elder Robinson to
start his own congregation, one that would be called the Macedonia
Church of God.

For a while the congregation shared a storefront
with another church, until it raised enough money to buy a former
synagogue that featured rooms used for transitional housing. “Housing
for people coming from the South,” Bishop Robinson recalls. “Escaping
segregation.”

Finally, in 1961, the elder Robinson, now working
as a stain spotter at a dry cleaners, persuaded his congregation to buy
an old Episcopalian church that sat on a small corner lot on King
Street.

For decades he juggled the dual tasks of cleaning
clothes and saving souls. He immersed believers in the baptismal pool,
presided over their weddings, talked Bible to them on Sundays, led
others in prayer after they had gone. Years of footsteps formed grooves
in the red stone steps leading to the church’s wooden door.

The
elder Robinson died in 2001 at age 86. Bryant Robinson Jr., his
co-pastor and the oldest of his five children, took over the
congregation, switching gears after more than 30 years as a civic
leader and educator; at one time he had served as the city’s interim
superintendent of schools.

Bishop Robinson soon decided the
church on King Street, now more than a century old, could no longer
meet the congregation’s needs. Parking was minimal, the maroon carpet
old, the windows small and high; Oh Lord, could it get hot in those
pews on a late summer Sunday.

We deserve a church meant for
us, built by us, he told his congregants, and they agreed. The weekly
tithing and special offerings took on added urgency, as the bishop
reminded people that when you invest in Kingdom’s church, you cannot
lose.

The church eventually bought four wooded acres on
Tinkham Road, about five miles away, from Andrew Robinson, both a
brother of the bishop and the congregation’s music director. (“We got a
favorable rate,” the bishop says, smiling.) Where others saw tall pine
trees and sandy soil, he envisioned a soaring church with plenty of
parking.

As time passed, enthusiasm flagged; the project sometimes seemed to be
nothing more than an architectural sketch hanging in the back of the
old church. As it changed in scope and required the purchase of more
land, Bishop Robinson tried to re-ignite interest and to convey his
commitment by announcing that he had long ago stopped drawing a salary.

The response, he says, was “marginal.”

Still, the project
inched forward, thanks in part to the guidance of the church’s lawyer,
Bradford Martin Jr. He helped to secure a $1.9 million construction
loan, and worked to allay the concerns of neighbors opposed to having a
church in their backyard.

Finally, in April 2007, dignitaries
and elders joined Bishop Robinson in breaking ground with shovels
painted gold. “I was so elated that day,” he says. “At one point I said
we may be standing in the sanctuary. And you know where we were? In the
parking lot.”

After a while, though, parishioners who previously
visited the site to mutter “This is too small” and “That’s not right”
would gaze upon the 18,000-square-foot structure and say only, “Wow.”

“That became the descriptive word,” the bishop says. “Wow.”

Hardly a day would pass without a visit from the bishop. He would sit in his car, watch the workers — and visualize.

You would enter a foyer large enough for people to chat with one
another after services. To the right, a men’s room; to the left, a
spacious ladies’ lounge with large mirrors, because he remembered his
father’s fear of the sermon he would have to give if women stopped
attending: “Finally, brothers, farewell.”

A large meeting hall
in the back, suitable for weddings and church gatherings. A row of
prayer rooms to the right. A pastor’s office in the left corner. A food
prep room. A chandelier one day, but not now. And, of course, the
500-seat sanctuary, designed to be intimate, with video equipment to
project the full-immersion baptisms on a screen for all to see.

Oh, and plenty of parking for a congregation sure to grow.

By Election Day, 75 percent of the construction was finished, with the
entire exterior nearly done and construction workers planning to lay
the water line in the morning. The bishop could taste it. He watched
the election returns, felt pride in his country and turned out the
light. And during his short sleep, someone set fire to his dream.

Investigators say the cause was arson, but so far they have no suspects
or evidence that the crime was rooted in racism. Still, the bishop
cannot shake the timing of it — timing that will now forever link two
events, one of joy and pride, another of loss and horror.

As
Election Night melted away, as memories of the past tempered thoughts
of the future, the bishop sat in that chair, thinking, praying. Behind
him were stacked five gold-painted shovels from the groundbreaking; in
front of him, the fire; above him, the mysterious pitch of the night.
And the thought came to him: Build again.

Source: New York Times

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