How things have changed in just two short weeks. Now, investigators tell a different story. Fourty-five year old Dr. Joseph Howard has been arrested and charged with first degree arson. He is being held in the Dougherty County Jail without bond, along with 46-year old Curtis Jones. Investigators say Howard hired Jones to set the fire in the South Albany church. Full story, with video, aired on January 18th, 2008 by WALB Channel 10. And guess what? The accompanying video shows Pastor Howard is black. Surprise, surprise. NOT!
Arson investigators say the burning of the Metropolitan Baptist Church on December 31st was not a hate crime, but a crime for money. They charge that Reverend Howard had his church torched to collect the insurance money. Formerly known as Trinity Baptist, Metropolitan Baptist Church on West Gordon Avenue was vandalized and set on fire. Furniture was found turned over in the church and school offices, but only the sanctuary was burned. Damage is estimated between $150,000 to $200,000.
Investigators charge that Reverend Howard sat down with 46-year old Curtis Jones and planned the arson, to make sure the entire church building burned. But the fire department put out the fire in the sanctuary.
Witnesses saw men leaving the area that morning, giving investigators clues that lead them to make these arrests. Howard told WALB News Ten that he thought the fire was a hate crime, but investigators say it was for the insurance money. The Metropolitan Baptist Church was being foreclosed for missing payments on two mortgages, and church property was scheduled to be sold on the courthouse steps that week.
The church and Reverend Howard were using federal grants to build low cost housing in a very controversial project in that neighborhood. Investigators say they continue to look into allegations that some of that money was misappropriated.
Albany Fire Chief James Carswell and State Fire Commissioner John Oxendine said that more arrests in the church arson are expected, and they continue to look into the possibility of other crimes that could be connected to the church and its pastor.
In December 2003, the Trinity Community Development Corporation (Trinity CDC) in Albany, Georgia received a $3,975,300 grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The award was made under HUD’s Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program.
Trinity CDC was to use these funds to construct forty-nine affordable, one-bedroom apartments for very low-income elderly persons on a five-acre site. The development would have included community facilities and have been located convenient to retail and other amenities.
Georgia's Second District Congressman Sanford Bishop announced the award. “I was pleased to support this grant application, because far too many of Southwest Georgia’s low-income seniors spend their golden years in low quality housing,” Representative Bishop said. “I commend Trinity Metropolitan Baptist Church, under the leadership of Pastor Joseph Howard III, for the vision and commitment which inspired the creation of the Trinity CDC and encourage other faith communities to follow their example.”
Congressman Bishop is still in office. He has not reacted to this latest development.
Commentary: Back in 1996, there was a national hue-and-cry raised over an alleged "outbreak" of burnings of black churches, mostly in the South. Because white churches weren't torched in racially proportionate numbers, some people started hollering "Racism!". An article published by American Renaissance, entitled "Hate Crimes, Real And Imagined", puts this in better perspective. Here's the applicable excerpt:
How many black churches have been burned, and who burned them? Is there an upsurge of "racism"? No one really seems to know. In a comprehensive survey reported on June 28, USA Today counted 64 Southern black churches put to the torch in the year and a half since January 1, 1995. Is that more than usual? Compared to the previous several years there seem to be more black church burnings in some Southern states — Tennessee and South Carolina — but fewer in others — Arkansas and Georgia.
Ordinarily, there are about 600 cases of church arson every year, but this is a sharp drop from a high of 1,420 in 1980. So far, the number of fires is part of the normal range of annual variation. Spokesmen for the insurance industry say they expect this year's totals — both black and white — to be within anticipated figures.
Who has been burning black churches? Of the 64 counted by USA Today, eight appear to have been set by blacks, 12 by whites, and one by a mixed group of two whites and one black. In only three cases have there been detentions or convictions of whites who may have had racial reasons for burning a church.
That leaves 43 fires in which there are no suspects. Some may have been set by "racists," but the evidence is circumstantial: one black church was burned on Martin Luther King's birthday; another was burned while a nearby white church was not; in one town, two black churches went up on the same night.
John Robison, Fire Marshal for the state of Alabama, has investigated all 15 cases of black church arson in his state since 1990. He has found no evidence of "racism" in any of them and says "I don't think this state is much different from others." In the midst of all the hand-wringing about "racism," Mr. Robison makes a point everyone seems to have forgotten: "Most times until you identify the perpetrator you can't know the motive."
In the Albany case, we now know the perpetrator - and the motive. He wasn't white, and it wasn't racism.