Fishwrap Archive

Snuffing out wildfires of hate

PATERSON, N.J. -- Citing a "wildfire of hate" sweeping the country, the Rev. Alfred E. Steele, Democratic assemblyman from Paterson, announced on Thursday that he will introduce legislation on Monday to stiffen penalties for arson of houses of worship.

At a news conference on the steps of Seminary Baptist Church, where Steele is pastor, he decried the wave of arson that has destroyed or damaged 31 predominantly black churches across the south over the last 18 months. Most recently, the Missionary Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., was attacked early Thursday morning. The phenomenon has even reached New Jersey, when a suspicious blaze destroyed the Voice Center Baptist Church in Tinton Falls on Feb. 13.

"These fires have desecrated the sacred symbols of one of the most cherished of American values, that is, the freedom of religion," Steele, the only clergyman in the Legislature, said. "These fires have caused more than mere property damage. They have caused an epidemic upon the black community, causing terror, fear. And yet, our devotion has not wavered."

Under current law the penalty for arsonists who target a church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship is no more severe than that for those who target abandoned buildings. Steele's proposed legislation, co-sponsored with Tom Smith (R-Asbury Park), would expand a 1992 law that established mandatory minimum jail terms for arson of health care facilities.

Anyone convicted of first-degree arson, in which the defendant either paid for or received payment for starting a fire or causing an explosion in a house of worship, would have to serve at least 15 years before being eligible for parole. Second-degree would carry a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years, with five years for third-degree arson and 18 months for fourth-degree arson.

Steele recognizes that the legislation, if passed, would do little to discourage a determined effort to destroy houses of worship. "But I hope that it would bring some fear to those who might be borderline," said Steele.

Flanked by representatives from Christian, Jewish and Islamic congregations, Steele, using his best sermon oratory, sent a message of unity.

"Today, we have representatives from all races and religions gathered here to reaffirm our commitment, our resolution to fight against anyone who would take the liberty to attack a symbol of peace," Steele said.

The group wanted to send a message that an attack on one house of worship was an attack on all houses of worship, and that they recognize that they have to work together to stop it.

"I think we have to watch out for each other," said the Rev. Paul DeVries, pastor of Unity Church in Prospect Park, N.J. "It's not just a black problem or a southern problem."

"Once we get the legislation passed," said Najee Salaam, of the Islamic Center of Passaic and Paterson, "it will be a strong step to let the community know, to let the world know, that we won't tolerate it."

The participants also view the wave of arson as a phenomenon more sinister than just isolated acts of vandalism.

The destruction reminded Rabbi Eugene Markovitz, of the Clifton Jewish Center, of Kristallnacht in Nov. 1938, when Nazis and their sympathizers destroyed synagogues and Jewish businesses throughout Germany. To Markovitz, Kristallnacht heralded the beginning of the Holocaust.

"Kristallnacht was the beginning of a chain of events which led to the destruction of 6 million Jews and millions and millions of others," Markovitz added. "And it all started with the destruction of Jewish houses of worship."

The Rev. Douglas Maven, of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Paterson, also sees an effort to destroy the symbols of leadership in the black community.

"We ask the question, 'Why the black church?' " said Maven. "I think the answer is clear when you look at the history of the empowerment the black church has brought to its community. The black church has produced most of our leaders."

All present expressed the hope the burnings end soon. Rabbi David Nesson, of the Morristown Jewish Center, summed up that desire, quoting the prophet Amos, "We pray that justice will come down like a mighty sword, and then peace will drip its sweetness from the mountain."

David M. Lawrence