Local group to help rebuild burned Alabama churches

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Greene County, Alabama, has had its share of tough luck. Long recognized as one of the nation's poorest counties, the area has lately been the scene of devastating church fires.

Four African American churches in this rural region have fallen victim to arson — part of a recent rash of Southern church fires that many say is racially motivated. Three Greene County churches have been destroyed.

None of the white churches in the area were touched.

For many in Boligee, a tiny Greene County town whose population is mostly African American, life itself centered around those generations-old churches — which are now little more than charred piles of brick.

The Boligee fires, and more than 40 others across the country, moved retired Bay Area physician Richard Marchick to involve his synagogue in relief efforts. This week, Marchick and David Ordin, another member of Lafayette's Temple Isaiah, will head for Alabama to help rebuild the decimated churches and lift the spirits of a community battered by hate.

"It makes me think about Germany in the '30s, when they burned down synagogues, and of Kristallnacht," Marchick says, recalling the night of Nov. 9, 1938, when Jewish property and synagogues were burned and which ushered in the Holocaust.

Adds Marchick, "I felt the need to do something."

After a speech to the synagogue's board, fellow board member Ordin, a Piedmont sales manager, agreed to accompany Marchick to Alabama.

The two will join a team of 32 Bay Area volunteers representing nine religious organizations. For one week, they will toil in the humid, mosquito-infested Alabama air with dozens of others from around the world. The Boligee relief effort is being coordinated by the Washington Quaker Workcamps.

The pacifist Christian movement has set up tents and cots for volunteers from any denomination. Workers must earn the cost of their airfare to Atlanta and pay $150 for their lodging. They must also be willing to "work in the spirit of loving nonviolence," according to a flier released by the Quaker organization.

The prospect of hard work is exactly what finally pushed Ordin into clearing his calendar for the week to lend a hand.

"This is an opportunity to go out and help somebody with some sweat, back and muscle rather than just writing a check," said Ordin.

He also credits his son Adam with inspiring him to get involved. The 19-year-old is in Mexico for the summer, helping to educate villagers about sanitation.

Meanwhile, the synagogue has raised several thousand dollars toward the Boligee relief effort.

As they pack insect repellent and sturdy shoes, the two East Bay men, like many other locals concerned about the fires, remember when, in the '60s, a similar rash of arson fires targeted Southern black churches and several Jewish synagogues.

The Rev. Vincent Mok of Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church is leading the local volunteer contingent. "The issues of the civil rights movement aren't over yet," he says.

He says he is grateful the delegation represents so many faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

"I'm so proud of that [diversity]. We've got blacks, whites and one Asian, me," jokes Mok.

The Bay Area Jewish community is also responding to the fires through a number of fund-raising efforts. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation maintains an emergency mailbox for contributions: Checks can be mailed to the JCF, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 95105. Include a note saying the money is for the "Rebuild the Churches Fund."

Nationally, the American Jewish Committee has joined the National Council of Churches and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to raise money for the fire-ravaged churches.

The San Francisco Interfaith Council, which conducted a communitywide prayer service for the churches two weeks ago, is hosting a benefit at San Francisco's M.H. de Young Memorial Museum at 6 p.m. Tuesday, July 16 in conjunction with Berkeley's Graduate Theological Union and several other groups. Guests will peruse a collection of Fabergé eggs.