East Bay Jews lend their hands to rebuild burned churches

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You'd think he was talking about a vacation at Club Med.

Retired physician Richard Marchick describes his trip last week as "a wonderful experience," to a place "green and lush, heavily wooded with a beautiful countryside."

Marchick didn't spend the week cycling through Ireland or antique-hunting in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Instead, he was in one of America's poorest spots, sanding, hammering and painting a choir box in the sweltering heat of Greene County, Ala.

One of 34 East Bay residents to travel to Alabama last week as part of an interfaith, international effort, Marchick was there to help rebuild four churches in the area devastated by arson. The churches were burned in an epidemic of blazes, most believed to be racially motivated.

The East Bay delegation consisted of 10 religious groups, including two synagogues; Marchick and son David, who now lives in Washington, D.C., were representing Lafayette's Temple Isaiah, along with Piedmont sales manager David Ordin. Real estate developer Courtney Seeple represented Oakland's Temple Sinai. Relief efforts there are being coordinated by Washington Quaker Workcamps.

The pacifist denomination set up tents and cots in the area and has invited volunteers of any faith who can pay $150 for their lodging to spend a week helping the beleaguered churches rise from the ashes.

The average family income in the mostly African American Greene County community of Boligee is $6,300. But according to the local Jews who traveled there, the area is rich not only in natural beauty but in community spirit.

After hours of toiling in the muggy air, Marchick says the highlight of each day was meeting the members of Little Zion, the tiny burned church he was helping to rebuild. Each day at noon, the church's parishioners would bring the volunteers lunch — fried chicken, ribs, greens, cake and grits. The church's 92-year-old minister would lead the group in a prayer of thanks.

Each night, congregants of the burned churches visited volunteers and gave informal choral music concerts, sometimes joined by the bluegrass sounds of Mennonite volunteers from Kentucky.

"It was uplifting. We made them feel good and they made us feel good," says Marchick.

Ordin, too, found the Boligee parishioners inspiring.

"They're a phenomenal group of people. There's been horrible racism and hatred thrown against them, yet they're finding the positive. That was the highlight, to see their high spirits, their love and appreciation," Ordin says.

As he set to work at Mount Zion Church — so small it has fewer than 50 members — Ordin saw something that he'll never forget.

"A lot of people would put messages in the raw door jams, before the framing went in. There were notes crammed in, and I saw one with the Hebrew word `shalom.' Jews must have been there before, and somewhere in the construction of that church will be these little messages."

Like the other Jewish participants, Temple Sinai's Seeple says he was moved to travel to Alabama by the resurgence of civil rights issues that marked the `60s.

"The fires rekindled what I dealt with as a teenager and as a college student," says Seeple, 48, recalling Jewish students who traveled to the South decades ago to fight for civil rights. "These church burnings exemplified that hatred and prejudice are still here."

As a board member who helped Temple Sinai earn historical landmark status, Seeple says he also has new respect for the importance of buildings themselves.

For many, he says, a church or synagogue "is the center of their world, of their religion. It's more than just a building."