MILLEN, Ga. - Volunteers helping rebuild a Jenkins County church that was destroyed by fire say the project has brought blacks and whites together.
"I think a lot of people would like to come together along racial lines, but they don't know where to start," said volunteer Doug Tanner of the Faith and Politics Institute in Washington, D.C.
"In a place like this, you really have the mandate to get down and start understanding each other on a deeper level," he said.
Swapping their coats and ties for tool belts and flannel, volunteers from as far away as California pitched in this week to raise the burned-out church's frame.
Gays Hill is one among hundreds of black churches damaged in ed string of arsons over the last two years.
"We're just seeing some really good healing come from this," said Hilda Dutrow, volunteer coordinator for the Gays Hill project. "It's Christian love in action that we're seeing here."
Among her helpers Monday were Republican U.S. Reps. Charles Norwood of Augusta, Jack Kingston of Savannah, and members of both their staffs.
Gays Hill is a 45-member church first built in 1920. It burned early last March after someone started a fire with gasoline, investigators say. No arrests have been made.
Construction is expected to be completed in July. Until then, the congregation has been holding services in Portal at Newton Grove Baptist Church, where they worshiped with and recognized volunteers Monday night.
Gays Hill is one of 197 churches throughout the South and 328 nationwide damaged in either apparent arsons or bombings since Jan. 1, 1995, according to a recent U.S. Department of Justice report. Of the sanctuaries attacked, 243 were black churches.
Last week, 18 members of a Chicago council of churches joined local contractors to help pour the new sanctuary's foundation and begin construction.
Groups from as nearby as Statesboro's Georgia Southern University and from as far away as California are scheduled to help on the project in coming weeks, Dutrow said.
The new church is being funded by a $110,000 grant from the National Council of Churches and local donations. The church was partially insured.
Volunteer Doug Tanner, of Washington D.C.'s Faith and Politics Institute, said Monday's work was a chance to make a difference on a local level after five years on Capitol Hill.
"It's easy to get out of touch with normal daily pleasures and struggles," in Washington, said the Methodist minister from North Carolina.
Tanner, whose group helped rebuild another burned church in Virginia in October, said the work gives volunteers an opportunity to get to know people from other racial, religious and social backgrounds.
"I think a lot of people would like to come together along racial lines, but they don't know where to start," Tanner said. "In a place like this, you really have the mandate to get down and start understanding each other on a deeper level."
Last year's fire was the latest in a long string of hardships for the 76-year-old Gays Hill church's congregation.
In 1921, a year after it was founded as Ages Hill Baptist Church, the sanctuary was destroyed by lightning. It was again destroyed by a storm in 1940, when it was replaced by the building that stood until March.
More recently, church property was damaged and stolen by vandals in 1986 and again in 1994. No arrests were made in either case.
Gays Hill was one of four black churches in Georgia destroyed by apparent arsons between Jan. 1, 1995 and Jan. 7, 1997.
The others are Swift Creek Missionary Church and Greater Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Macon and Holy Band of Inspiration Church in Brunswick. No arrests have been made in any of the Georgia cases.
Kingston said the rash of fires has harmed society, not just congregations.
"When you've got churches burning down, it's not good for society," Kingston said. "While we may not know the exact cause of every fire, we know the harmful effects of the fires."