A Recollection – Pine Lake Baptist Church Fire – June, 1996


Background:

Things aren’t always as they seem on the “first blush.” So there’s no misunderstanding , here’s how I am choosing to define “first blush” – at the first glimpse or impression; as in, “at first blush the idea possesses considerable intuitive appeal but on closer examination it fails.” That is an important distinction for the reading of this article.

In 1996 the national news media was riveted on stories regarding church burnings primarily in the southern USA, and in particular the burning of black churches. One news outlet after another fell into the trap of “first blush” journalism. Articles flooded the airways and printed media regarding the burnings and characterized them as hate crimes against minorities, even terrorism fostered by white racists. ABC, CBS, NBC, and particularly USA Today and CNN ran continuous negative stories almost daily for a period of 5-6 months. Usually the stories received first place in the news broadcast or front page positioning in the printed media. This went on for months and was broadcast around the world.

The church burnings were eventually viewed as a national problem that had to be dealt with. According to the Chicago Tribune, even President Clinton took to the airways and said “This has got to stop, this tears at the very heart of what it means to be an American. … We need every person from every walk of life and all faiths in America to speak up against this.” Clinton even went so far as to meet with southern governors to “discuss strategies for stopping the attacks.” Click on this link to a June 17, 1996 article to read more about the fire. Here’s another link to a June 18, 1996 article if you want to read even more.

While there were indeed a lot of black church fires over that time-frame, there were many more white church fires as well. No journalist ever did enough homework over the 5-6 month period to check on what were thought of as “white” churches. Finally, when a fire destroyed the original sanctuary and education space building of the Pine Lake Baptist Church (PLBC) in Stone Mountain, Georgia things started to change and the “first blush” mania began to die down. PLBC was my church. Our congregation was now right in the bull’s-eye of the international news media mania.

But PLBC was different as it was classified by the news media as a “white” church though the membership had long been multi-ethnic/multi-racial. Most reports in the national media now spoke of PLBC and the fact that “Pine Lake Baptist’s congregation is mostly white, with about a dozen blacks out of 1,000 members.” Of course, even this first blush comment was a gross exaggeration that the journalists just passed on to one another without really checking the facts. PLBC might have had 1,000 members on its roll, but just like so many other churches at the time of the article, only approximately 150-200 regularly attended the church. The other 800-850 had gradually moved away to other areas and never removed their names from the church rolls.

Since PLBC was still predominately white, the news media couldn’t quite fit that into the perceived “first blush” pattern of southern black church burnings. So news media from all over the USA and some from even other parts of the world including the UK (BBC), Australia, Canada and some European countries descended on PLBC and the Pine Lake community to get the “scoop.” The New York Times hired a writer/investigator that had covered a “hate” bombing of a Jewish Synagogue in Atlanta in previous years. She stayed on site at the church for more than a week interviewing dozens of members, and attending most of the church’s meetings. She also did interviews with non-members from the surrounding community to check on PLBC’s reputation. Her conclusion, the “supposed” terrorist burning of Pine Lake Baptist Church had nothing to do with racism, nor for that matter, terrorism.

Wow! Someone finally did enough digging to conclude something other than the perceived first blush conclusion. From that point forward the front page news story began to gradually fade away. PLBC, like so many other churches moved on to deal with the real tragedy — the loss of an important building to our ministry. The building was not used for administration as wrongly reported in the news media. It was actually now used as our children’s facility where most of our sessions were conducted for boys and girls between the ages of six and twelve including our very successful weekly AWANA program. I will discuss more about this later in the article.

In December 1996 an article by Michael Fumento appearing in The American Spectator kind of summed up the media frenzy as Fumento looked back over the entire series of events and reported: “in late June and early July — with the nation in the grip of a media blitz that was pushing public sentiment to the boiling point — USA Today pulled off the kind of once-in-a-lifetime journalistic coup that forges reputations and launches careers. Racism hadn’t been a major factor in the burnings after all, the paper reported. Many more white churches were being torched, and the number of black churches set ablaze wasn’t significantly higher than it had been in the past.” The article did a good job explaining that the feeding frenzy took place primarily because such stories sold papers and snared watchers … the connection to deep-seated racial tensions, and supposed racial discrimination fueled the fire. Disinformation, made up statistics, conjecture, blowing the situation well beyond reasonable bounds, and down-right lies allowed the story to build and build to the point where facts didn’t matter. “First blush” impressions and misleading information had won out over truth and honesty.

So why am I recounting this story in such detail? What is the point? Is there a Biblical application? The Bible has much to say about honesty (and dishonesty), integrity, half-truths, deception, innuendo, lies, slander, gossip, spreading rumors, and rationalization.

Scripture: all scripture ESV unless otherwise noted

Exodus 20:16 – You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

Galatians 6:7Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.

1 John 1:8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

James 1:26If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-5 – For you yourselves know, brothers, that our coming to you was not in vain. 2 But though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had boldness in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in the midst of much conflict. 3 For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive, 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5 For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed— God is witness.

Discussion:

My reference to Exodus 20:16 is clearly related to the topic. This is the ninth of God’s Ten Commandments. Bearing false witness is more than lying in a courtroom. False witness is more than lying in general. False witness degrades one’s reputation and dignity. Proverbs 6:16-19 (NIV) says – “16 There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, 19 a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.”

In the case of the church fires in 1996 the news media was definitely a victim of the “first blush” syndrome. Sometimes we let our prejudices get in the way of the truth. What seemed to be true was not true at all. It was ultimately determined that only four of the eighty church burnings studied of black churches were racially motivated. Over the same period there were also 140 white churches burned and few of these were racially motivated. These statistics were purposefully ignored by the media, particularly USA Today, because they did not support their preconceived and daily hammered front page story line. However, the erroneous stories did stir up conflict in the community and all across the world. There are consequences to such misrepresentation and everyone suffers as a result. But don’t be deceived … Galatians 6:7 tells us that the sower of false witness information will ultimately be the reaper. The sower may argue that it was just a mistake, not a sin. But the Bible is clear about sin saying that we can easily fool ourselves (1 John 1:8). For the Christian James (James 1:26) teaches that we should bridle our tongue and not pass along misinformation and lies as it is in opposition to our religion and thus our witness.

To carry the analysis a little further, Christians in particular have a responsibility to speak the truth and not pass along false rumors, first blush impressions, unfounded accusations and flat-out lies. Far too often during the black church burning era national “religious” leaders fanned the flames of civil discontent by supporting and repeating the false stories. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-5 speaks to the Christian’s responsibility to not let their motives and actions … spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts.” This is good advice for everyone and going against this Biblical advice is exactly the way that false rumors and gossip are spread. You may want to refer to my previous article On Christians Spreading Rumors and Gossip in the Church.

Reflection:

At the time of the PLBC church fire in 1996, the retired Reverend Randy Mullis was our Interim Pastor while we searched for our new permanent pastor. Brother Randy held us together and kept us focused on the right things in a very difficult time. God knew both who and what we needed and He provided.

Brother Randy was the former pastor of Rainbow Park Baptist and Tucker First Baptist. He and his lovely wife Kathleen had the sweetest attitude. Randy’s style of preaching depended heavily on his long life experience and he often told us personal stories related to his scripture lessons. In his late 70’s, Randy would probably have just rather enjoyed his retirement than to take on another church. But God told him differently and sent him to us with a very specific purpose in mind. Randy was good-hearted, kind, always positive, flexible, and very experienced with multi-ethnic and multi-cultural congregations. Mrs. Kathleen was such a compliment to Randy with her radiant smile and sweet spirit. She fit right in with our people and quickly made friends with everyone.

Brother Randy spoke to the national and international media repeatedly about our church and the fire. No matter who called, he responded. He was professional and kind. He spoke calmly on camera with CNN and never once broke from his Christian character. I thank God to this day for Randy and Kathleen … both now in Heaven with the Lord.

The real loss to our church as a result of the fire was the lack of adequate space to continue to conduct our active community serving Children’s program.  We never focused on self-pity.  We were concerned about ministry. As it turned out, the building that burned was covered completely by insurance.

Pine Lake Baptist Church Children’s Building

Over the next six months, contractors built a brand new Children’s building with wonderful educational space, a half-court basketball space, and an area specifically suited to our AWANA program where children learned scripture and participated in activities that would guide them through rest of their lives. Some of the AWANA children ministered to in the succeeding years went on to become leading citizens in the community finishing college and even graduate school. Many of these children came from single parent homes. Some of their parents joined our congregation and are still a vibrant part of our church in 2012.

2008 Trunk or Treat for AWANA Children

How many children has the “tragedy” aided through the ministry of Pine Lake Baptist Church in the years after the fire? God blessed in the midst of a seeming tragedy … in the midst of false first blush impressions … in the midst of lies and false accusations … in the midst of a real need.

Adult Sunday School Christmas Party 12-20-2008

PLBC is still a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church, however we don’t concentrate on that at all. We are simply a church focused on serving the Lord Jesus Christ and equipping the saints. Our people love each other and our church serves the community. I am proud to be a part of such a vibrant congregation. And I am glad that God used our church to help change the tide of the negative international media reporting in 1996 regarding the church fires. We have so much for which we are thankful. God has blessed our ministry and seen us through a number of major transitions.

Looking back some sixteen years later, I am thankful that the truth finally came out about the church fires. I am concerned that today’s national news media has fallen even further away from reporting the news truthfully and factually. It appears that they are now focusing less on truth and more on opinion and support for their own agendas. God will not be mocked. There is a price to pay for arrogance, disinformation and lying.

Christian, make sure that you are doing what is right in the sight of God.  Tell the truth, support your local church by not participating in the spread of half-truths, lies, gossip and rumors. Do not be deceived by first blush impressions. Remember, God expects Christians to live by His standard as recorded in His Word and not our fleshly desires.

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Related  Articles by Jim Davenport on this subject:

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About jimdavenport

Jim Davenport resides in the USA in Northeast Georgia, is a member of a Southern Baptist Church and is a retired Christian business man. Jim and his wife Charlotte have one son and daughter in law, Keven and Amy, four grandchildren - Ashlyn (Davenport) & Josh Murphy, and Mason & Rebecca Davenport. We have three great-grandchildren, Rhory Camile Murphy, Rhett Levi Murphy and Sawyer Joshua Murphy. Jim and Charlotte own a mountain get-away home located on Lookout Mountain in Alabama where they spend many spring, summer and fall days working in their raised bed organic garden. Jim has served as a Deacon and Trustee in his local church most of his adult life and on the Executive Committee and Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees of Shorter University, an intentionally Christian institution located in Rome, Georgia. Jim has a passion for the word of God and has always believed that Christian principles should guide every aspect of his life. He also loves Christian music and often served as a tenor soloist in his church. One of the highlights of his life was the nearly 20 years he spent singing with The Good News, a Southern Gospel quartet. Jim served as an Information Technology professional his entire working career of 50 years holding senior positions in and consulting with hundreds of world-class organizations in the United States, Canada, Europe, Central and South America, Australia and New Zealand. Jim remains as President and CEO of InfoSys Solutions Associates, Inc. and is a retired partner of IT Governance Partners, LLC, both of which are “Trusted Advisor” technology and business consulting firms. Jim has authored a number of books available at www.jimdavenport.me/jims-books. His blog has ben read by readers from more than 170 countries. Jim holds both a BS and an MS in Mathematics from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia and completed Management Development Training at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
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4 Responses to A Recollection – Pine Lake Baptist Church Fire – June, 1996

  1. Terry Fields says:

    GREAT ARTICLE JIM…what a wonderful story and the spiritual insight is profound. Keep up the good work.

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    • jimdavenport says:

      Terry, I am so thankful for your comment in particular. I am not so sure about the spiritual insight being profound. I just write from my heart and try to make everything I say Bible based. I don’t always succeed in that, but I try. Sometimes the flesh gets in the way. I miss seeing you and talking to you. Hopefully that will change in the near future. Charlotte sends her love. Brother Jim

      Like

  2. Holly says:

    I remember exactly when that happened. I was on a youth retreat in Panama City FL with a youth group from another church. When the youth leaders read the morning paper and found out they very respectfully took me aside and shared the news with me. Of course I was exetremly upset but they prayed with me and a peace came over me as I realized that church is not a building. It is a body of believers united as one in Christ. We dont need an old building to worship, as long as we gather in His name he is there. I also realized that no amount of sin and evil doing is going to stop the Lord. As long as we are on his side we have nothing to fear. And of course the Lord came out on top and so did we with a wonderful new facility that we use today. Amen and praise God through whom all blessings flow.

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