As compassionate as that sounds, gays might run from White if they knew he believes the Biblical passage that calls homosexuality "an abomination" or if they overheard him say, "Homosexuals have problems, and that's why they're homosexuals." Likewise, many people who applaud his self-help themes might chafe when White talks passionately about the way blacks in the U.S. have historically been mistreated.
He is an ardent student of black history. The church fires keep taking him back to the long hot summers of the 1960s and the lynchings that were still going on in the '50s, the days when racists rode through Southern neighborhoods in the dead of night and terrorized places like the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where in 1963 four young girls were killed in a bomb explosion. Now, as then, White believes political rhetoric has fanned white resentment. And he believes the historic echoes in today's church burnings shouldn't be missed.
"That's why these militia groups are rising," he says. "That's why these skinhead groups are rising—those racist attitudes are still there, and, too often, we've forgotten our history. We don't want to think about lynchings, we don't want to think about burning the churches, or anybody who would compare slavery to how the Jews were treated during the Holocaust. What history's not telling us about is the slaves who died on the way over here or the others who were lynched, who were castrated, whose feet were cut off. Our women were raped. We don't want to remember that.
"But if you remember it, and you begin to look at it, then you begin to say, 'This can't happen anymore.' Then you begin to understand me. Then you'll begin to understand why I hurt like I hurt. And why I get so mad."
He is leaning forward in his chair now. He glares, and his expression is pained. He is saddened that more athletes haven't taken a vocal stand on the church burnings. "I'm out there by myself," he says.
For now, the Inner City congregation holds its services in a nearby high school auditorium. All that's left of the church is the hole where the foundation used to be, a few shards of charred wood and twisted metal and a mud-smeared patch of cobalt-blue tile that marks where the basement kitchen once was. Smith stood on the lip of the crater late one June afternoon and wistfully said, "Our day-care center would have been letting out about now, and this area would have been full of little children, all kinds of children running around and giggling and screaming when they saw their parents coming to pick them up."
By June more than $250,000 had been donated to Inner City Church. The outpouring has been so great that White changed his unannounced plan to retire when his contract expires after this season. "One boy sent us 92 pennies taped to a piece of cardboard," he says. "Those people forgot about me being a football player and said Reggie White, the man, needs our help. They revived me, to be honest."
Inner City Church will be rebuilt; work crews are scheduled to break ground for the new foundation this month. There are plans to go forward with the day-care center, and the church's radio station—"WDMF, What the Devil Mostly Fears," Smith says with a buoyant lilt—was already back on the air when White left for training camp in mid-July.
The same Sunday that White was away meeting with Reno, a middle-aged black woman in a sharp blue suit was bustling toward the front door of Inner City's interim home to attend church services. She is old enough to remember the Birmingham bombing. But when asked for her impressions of the recent church fires, she smiled ever so faintly, lifted her chin a little and said, "The devil's been mighty busy. But that don't mean he gets the last say."