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BLACK CHURCHES WERE ALWAYS a mystery to me, a white child growing up in the South. The buildings were not so different from the country churches where my grandfather preached: Simple wooden structures, whitewashed or painted, with splintering pews and well-kept cemeteries where generations of families had buried their dead.

There were countless such churches across the South, as common to the landscape as red clay and kudzu. Places where poor people, like my family, came together to worship, to sing hymns and hear sermons and repent sins.Black or white, we kept the same faith. We read the same Bible, feared the same God, sinned the same sins and got saved by the same grace, the same precious blood of Jesus.

The difference, of course, was that we did so separately, as we did most everything in the South during the '50s - separate churches, separate schools, separate water fountains, separate lives. We had everything in common, or so it seemed to me, and yet, no matter how close we came - close enough to breathe the same air and watch the sweat roll down our necks - there remained a distance between us. That was what mystified me, the distance.

Wilkie was the black woman who cleaned house for my aunt and who occasionally looked after me when I came to visit. One Saturday, while my aunt was in town, Wilkie went to work on my church dress.

"Needs a good starching," she said, testing the iron with a wet finger, "can't have you going to the house of God looking shabby."

She'd gone to church every Sunday of her life, she said, never once in a wrinkly dress.

"Can I go with you to your church some time?" I asked. Wilkie ironed real fast for a minute. When she stopped, her smile was weary. "It's the same church, child, just different buildings. Maybe we can all worship together someday."

I never went to church with Wilkie. Never saw her after my aunt moved to another town. I left the South when I was 20, though it never left me, and made my home in California.

In years since, I've had numerous occasions to visit black churches for weddings or baptisms or funerals. Too many funerals, really. They are city churches, not country like the ones I knew. But they have the same feel - dignified and unpretentious - so much so I often forget I'm a guest and sing too loud, just as if I were at home.

This morning, when I read of yet another burning - 38, so far, predominantly black churches in the South - I remembered Wilkie's words. A church isn't a building. It's a body of believers. And the body of a black church is no stranger to persecution. Burn down the building and the body will survive. It will feed on its own ashes to rise again, stronger, surer, more resolute than before.

So will we, regardless of our races or beliefs - if we stand together against this injustice, if we rebuild every burned-out church - it will make us all the stronger. Perhaps then we'll be ready to worship together, too.