By Stephanie Barry / The Republican
Religion News Service
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (RNS) The Rev. Hillary Chrisley has traveled throughout the deep South, helping to rebuild churches torched by arson, but traveling to the heart of New England was an anomaly for the pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"This is our first venture up North," she said, wiping sweat from her brow after hours of work at the Macedonia Church of God in Christ that was razed by arsonists hours after President Obama's election as the nation's first black president.
Chrisley is one of 33 volunteers from her church and a synagogue in California who traveled here at their own expense to help the regular construction crew rebuild.
"It's bittersweet. We wish we were doing it just to help build and not to rebuild," said Chrisley, a member of the Arson Rebuild Work Team of Santa Barbara. The California group is the third team of volunteers that has come to the city this month, including another from the West Coast and one from Chicago.
Bishop Bryant Robinson Jr., leader of the predominantly black Macedonia church, said a small miracle has been born from the ashes.
"It's been absolutely gorgeous to see the progress they've made," Robinson said, perched on a folding chair at the work site.
The $2.5 million structure burned to the ground in a spectacular blaze set by three men who lived nearby, according to federal and state investigators.
Two defendants have pleaded guilty to arson in federal court and are awaiting sentencing. A third defendant will be tried this fall.
Gleason and Haskell admitted harboring hatred for blacks and Hispanics, and said they set fire to the church to denounce Obama's election. They told investigators they crept through the woods in the middle of the night, climbed through a window and doused the church with gasoline, then set it ablaze.
The church-in-progress is a skeleton of its former self, but Robinson said construction has progressed with the help of the volunteers.
Karen Schloss Heimberg, a volunteer from Santa Barbara's Congregation B'nai B'rith, said the effort is as much about the message as the bricks and mortar.
"We're here trying to right what three hateful people did," she said. "To show people that we will not allow injustice and hate to stand."
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