Students, faculty react to church fires

| March 3, 2010

Richland students and instructors responded with sadness and anger to the series of church fires in East Texas.

Many sympathize with those who have lost their church and are surprised by the events.

"I'm shocked and that's really sad," Sophia Quesada said. "Considering I'm a Christian, that's really scary."

"My initial reaction to the story is one of grief," David Halleen, professor of world religions said. "Grief for those who have lost a building that offered them a sacred space, grief for the communities that might, for a while, have difficulty trusting, and grief for the lost promise of individuals who would carry out such horrific acts."

Ten Texas churches have been set on fire since Jan. 1, leaving many confused, angry and distressed. Authorities believe all the fires, which occurred mainly in East Texas, were the works of an arsonist or a group of arsonists.

Jason Robert Bourque and Daniel George McAllister were arrested Feb. 22 and charged with one count of arson after the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives released sketches of three suspects. Police believe the suspects will face more charges.

Though these arrests may come as a relief for some, many are still left without a place of worship on Sunday mornings.

Students like Michel Clah responded to these incidents with anger.

"I think that you don't have the right to burn any church," Clah said. "The church is God's house and people go there to pray. I think people who do that have to get punished."

For a few, the burnings are unfortunate but don't come as a surprise.

"My initial response is lament, but I'm not surprised," Shannon Colon said. "Most people think religion is either beautiful or an annoyance. They are either passive about it or take their negative views and do extreme things."

In a time when the idea of coexistence is stressed, some students said these events reflect a lack of acceptance for Christianity.

"I find nowadays that there's little middle ground," Colon said. "Either there's acceptance or there's absolute hate. The problem is people are ignorant."

"Obviously a lot of people don't like Christianity anymore," Quesada said. "These people probably want to eliminate it."

Not all was lost in the destruction of these churches, as many volunteers have offered to watch over churches from dusk to dawn.

"There seems to have been a genuine outpouring of sympathy across confessional lines, which is always a nice thing to see in our day and age," World Religions professor Jon Ewing said. "One woman was even quoted as saying that although the church building had been destroyed, nevertheless the true church was in the local people's hearts."

"While great damage is done by a few individuals that tempt us not to trust others, the healing process begins through the gracious acts of many," Halleen said. "Indeed, the silver lining in many tragic circumstances are the relationships made when people come to the aid of each other."

Clah has never been to an American church and would still like to visit one despite these fires.

"Every night I pray and I am a Christian," Clah said. "Back in my country it's kind of a protested thing. I've never been to a church here, but I just talked to my friend who goes to church and he said that it is good to go to church."

Since the reasons for why these two men allegedly burned the churches are unclear, Ewing advises that people should wait until those facts are released before everyone starts creating assumptions about the case.

"One must always be careful in attempting to extrapolate from incidents of violence in religion, Ewing said." As we always discuss in our World Religions courses, when someone perpetrates an act of violence in the name of religion, or in this case a destructive act against a religious site, one must be careful not to generalize. There could very well be personal reasons behind the two young men's actions, especially since the media identified the two as church-goers themselves. So before the entire story comes out, we really don't know if these people were upset about something that took place, or if they had entirely independent motivations," Ewing said.

 

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