Rebuilding Churches, and a Whole Lot More

"We are here to witness the conviction that the builders of this country far outnumber the bombers and the burners."
Rev. D. Curtis Minter
Antioch Baptist Church
Ripley, Miss. 1964

In December 1964, a group of Oberlin College students and faculty traveled to Antioch, Mississippi, to rebuild a church that had been burned down by the Ku Klux Klan. Over fall break 1996, a group of nine Oberlin College students once again traveled to Mississippi to lend their hands and hearts toward the rebuilding of St. Paul Primitive Baptist Church in Meridian. The students volunteered through Washington Quaker Workcamps.

Speaking about the recent rash of burned African-American churches, junior David Heafitz, who helped to organize the trip through the Office of Chaplains said, "I saw the need for something to be done. Within three weeks we went from the concept to the thing itself." The group received $450 from college co-ops and $1,000 from President Nancy Dye to fund the trip.

The students-turned-church builders began each day at 5:30 a.m. After eating breakfast, they drove from the naval base where they were staying to the church. The students worked hard--cutting, measuring, and hanging pieces of drywall weighing anywhere from 50 to 75 pounds. The group also spackled the church's interior, and they had begun work on the steeple when the time came for them to leave.

Katherine Higgins, a sophomore from Charlotte, North Carolina, saw the experience as a chance to step outside her normal college routine. "In college so much of what you do is abstract and long-term," she said. "It was really satisfying to see something physically taking shape."

The students worked until lunch, which was made by members of the church being rebuilt. "I've never tasted such good food in my life!" said Maria Garcia, a first-year student from Chicago. "They had spareribs and barbecued chicken, and they were so friendly." During the meal, the Obies got a chance to socialize with members of the church and community. "Many people [from the church] would have loved to help rebuild the church, but some of them were already working three jobs a day and didn't have the time," said Garcia.

Higgins said that religious differences were welcomed and admired, but that service, rather than religion, was the main purpose of the project. "There were two people who were Jewish, three people were Catholic, one was Greek Orthodox, and another was atheist. Religion was there but it wasn't really a factor."

Heafitz agreed. "It's someone's house of worship and it was burned. It's not a Jewish, Christian, black, white problem--it's a people problem."

Work ceased at around 4:30 p.m. and the group returned to the naval base for rest and relaxation, which included anything from a swim in the pond to playing pool and talking. "It was pretty amazing how the nine of us got together and became such good friends," said Brad Skow, a college junior from San Luis Obispo, California.

Garcia was likewise enthusiastic about the new friends she made on the trip. "I feel like I have a family in these people," she said.

Protestant Chaplain Fred Lassen, who helped the students organize the trip, summed up the group's response to the experience. "Overall, the students' experience was very positive. The work site director said that they were an outstanding group."

Stephen Postellon, a senior from Oak Park, Michigan, said, "I haven't participated much in volunteer activities at Oberlin in the past, and I was very happy to have had this chance."

Skow added, "It was a small contribution but we all felt really good about the job we did."

Those good feelings must have spread. Inspired by the experience of the nine who went to Mississippi in October, a group of 40 students traveled over winter term to Greensboro, Alabama, to help rebuild Rising Star Baptist Church. Twenty students worked there during the first week in January, and another 20 spent the last week of January at the construction site.

The students were supported financially by the Office of the President, the Winter Term Office, and several student organizations, as well as by First Church in Oberlin, First United Methodist Church of Oberlin, and the Oberlin Rotary. The parents of one participating student and an anonymous alumnus each contributed $1,000, and the Seattle Lutheran Church attended by one of the student volunteers also contributed to the project.

In addition, Maria Garcia, one of the original nine, spent winter term as an intern with the Washington Quaker Workcamp (WQW) in Greensboro. Under the national coordination of the Church Rebuilding Project of the Church World Service, WQW is the site manager for the Rising Star Baptist Church construction project.

--Joshua Ritter '99

Return to the ATS-January 1997 Table of Contents