What happened at Inner City Church remains unclear. Among the possibilities that authorities have pursued is whether a church leader or a congregant was involved. All 13 parishioners who had a key to the building agreed to take polygraph tests. White estimates that 200 church members have been questioned. Church financial records dating back to 1992 were subpoenaed. By March, White was so unhappy with the insinuations that he took his complaints to a fellow Tennesseean—Vice President Al Gore.
White also joined other church leaders in clear-the-air meetings with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who oversees the ATF. During these meetings White pounded home the message that many of the burned churches are poor and underinsured and would need financial assistance to rebuild. Then he initiated an NFL Players Association's fund-raising drive.
Although White wasn't among the Inner City Church members questioned about the fire, he was visited by two ATF agents last spring. According to Sara, it was not the friendliest of meetings. "It could've ended in five minutes," she recalls. "It took about an hour. They didn't want Reggie speaking out, that was the bottom line."
If those were the authorities' intentions, they picked on the wrong man.
White wonders if Inner City's emphasis on the economic empowerment of blacks and other poor people has ruffled feathers in Knoxville. White's church has a congregation of about 450. It is in a struggling, mostly black inner-city neighborhood on the east side of Knoxville. As Harold Smith, one of White's fellow ministers, says, "We're not just a good-time, hand-clapping, shouting-hallelujah church that holds services on Sunday and then forgets about people come Monday."
No. The church has a community development arm that refurbishes condemned houses for resale and builds affordable homes. Using a $1 million gift from White as seed money, the church in late 1994 opened the investment bank, which lends money to people who can't qualify for a loan from a full-service bank. The bank also runs finance and job-skill seminars, and it provides small-business owners with credit lines, planning help and access to office equipment. Before the sanctuary and adjoining church offices burned down, the congregation ran an AM radio station with religious programming, and it was about to open a low-cost day-care center in the basement that would have created at least 40 jobs. In short, White says, "we get people off welfare and help them become tax-paying citizens." He and Sara also opened Hope Palace, a home for unwed mothers on the same property on which they built their own house.
As Dewey Roberts, president of the Knoxville chapter of the NAACP, says, "I would think even a racist would have to like some of the things Reggie does."
As a youngster growing up in Chattanooga, White attended a Baptist church. He began giving sermons at 17, and in 1992 he was ordained as a nondenominational minister. His ministry is part community outreach, part old-fashioned preaching because he believes that "people are tired of you jibber-jabbering at them, just telling them what they need."
In a typical summer White preaches four to five times at Inner City Church, and he travels around the country to help with street ministries. He sits on the Inner City executive board and runs a football camp in Knoxville because, he says, "I want to keep in touch over a number of years with the kids I meet." In addition to giving the community development banks a nationwide presence, he would like to start all-male private schools for black youths and other minorities and hire an all-male teaching staff as role models. "Our kids are dying in the streets," he says.
White has strong opinions about politics and government, and his beliefs are grounded in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Among other things, he doesn't smoke, swear, gamble or drink. He regards welfare as a failed policy that breeds dependency and undermines the nuclear family. Unwed mothers, gang members and homosexuals are among the people his street ministry tries to reach because he believes more traditional churches have shown such groups too much contempt. "We need to be making them feel loved," White says.