Times Past

Volunteering in the South to rebuild burned black churches an ‘expression of love’

Yoshiko Tachibana hangs drywall at Antioch United Holy Church in Rocky Point, North Carolina.
Yoshiko Tachibana hangs drywall at Antioch United Holy Church in Rocky Point, North Carolina.

National turmoil over passing the federal budget demonstrates what happens when people stop talking to each other. But in San Luis Obispo, we still talk! Liz and I love learning important, inspiring things about our community of which we were unaware.

That happened recently when I spoke at the SLO Lions Club. Liz was talking to former Cal Poly professor Del Dingus after dinner. She was delighted to find that following the 2001 Easter fire at SLO’s United Methodist Church, Dingus and his wife, Yoshiko Tachibana, and other Methodists followed the lead of Rev. Lloyd Saatjian, pastor at the First UMC in Santa Barbara, in joining a national coalition to rebuild burned historically black churches in the South.

“It takes two hours to burn a church and two years to rebuild it,” Saatjian said.

Dingus told Liz about Antioch United Holy Church in Rocky Point, North Carolina. In 1998, arson destroyed the 62-year- old church, home to 20 close-knit members. The FBI has been unable to discover the culprit. This was the third black church to be burned within a 20-mile radius there in three years and sadly a frequent occurrence for Southern black churches in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Fundraising for these efforts was hurt by the force of Hurricane Floyd, “an about every 500-year event,” in 1999. People had to rebuild homes, stores and farms. Help was needed! In 2001, Rev. John Wood spoke at United Methodist churches from Shandon to Santa Maria, corralling 15 volunteers into an enthusiastic crew. Except for Wood and an electrician from Hawaii, none had framing experience. They’d travel to North Carolina for a week in August to enjoy 85- to 100-plus-degree days with around 100 percent humidity.

They’d pay their own way, $800 each. In July, Catholic and Quaker rebuilding teams from the Midwest had volunteered at Antioch. Dingus and Tachibana raised money by plying their church friends with avocados and freshly squeezed orange juice, courtesy of their garden.

A few months after SLO’s church was hit by arson, it raised $2,000 for building supplies for Antioch.

A retired federal Health and Human Resources worker, rebuilding coordinator and fourth-generation Antioch member, Irene Wallace let the volunteers stay at her home. She’d cleared out her garage to make way for air mattresses. Some slept in the kitchen and in three bedrooms.

Her lovely home, on an acre lot, included a small garden, which was mowed over except for a patch of weeds. There Dingus spotted a watermelon. He told Mrs. Wallace he’d wanted to pick it, but she said it was for dessert that night. After delicious Southern-style meals served by church women, Rev. Wood led Bible study.

Wallace warned her guests about the collections taken up at the joyous Antioch service at the Rocky Point Community Center.

“There may be five, so don’t put all your donation into the first plate,” Dingus recalls her saying.

After work, they’d put on their swim suits and frolic in the summer showers. But they had to watch out for colonies of fire ants, which might rise together and bite their feet.

To this day, Dingus is thrilled that “Mrs. Wallace trusted me enough to let me drive her large Cadillac into town to pick up food at a little restaurant!”

The names of Central Coast volunteers at Antioch read like a patchwork of Americana: Ballagh, Grietens, Rev. Kim, Song (Arroyo Grande UMC); Cook, Georghiou, Hutchinson, Islander, Wood (Estero Bay UMC); Dingus, Tachibana (Christ UMC, Santa Maria); Gretter (Shandon UMC); Goldstein (L.A.) and Fukamoto (Hawaii). Names like Moon, Gomez and Sanchez came later.

“We came home with feelings of accomplishment, a better understanding of ourselves,” Dingus said. “Perhaps we will inspire others to work toward building a more compassionate world where an expression of a little love can change everything.”

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Enjoy Southern-style chicken BBQ lunch with all “the fixins,” at the 49th Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship BBQ on“Super Bowl Sunday” at the Elks Club, noon-3 p.m. at 222 Elks Lane in SLO. You can “eat in” or get take out.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.