Authorities in Louisiana are investigating what they call suspicious and related fires at three historical African-American churches in 10 days, starting on March 26. All three Baptist churches, located in the rural St. Landry Parish, were more than a century old.
“There is clearly something happening in this community,” says H. “Butch” Browning, the state’s fire marshal. “We do believe that crimes have occurred. We believe that the three fires are not coincidental; they are related.”
The FBI and ATF are assisting local authorities with the investigations, and no motive or suspect has yet been identified. No one was injured in the late-night blazes at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church, and St. Mary Baptist Church. A fourth blaze occurred at a predominantly black church about three hours away, but any possible connection remains unknown.
Amid the Tragedies, Worshipers Unite
“It’s sad that our society has stooped this low to do something like that,” says Mount Pleasant pastor Gerald Toussaint. Although the loss of the structure is “heartbreaking,” he says, “You can’t destroy the church, because the church is in the people, not the building.”
On Sunday, Morning Star Baptist Church welcomed Toussaint and his congregation for worship. “We’ll keep praying with a building or without a building,” says Curtis Zachary, a deacon at Morning Star. “You can burn a building, but you can’t take us, can’t break us.”
Browning asked worshipers to pray for whoever committed the “horrendous crime.” The affected churches have “formed a purpose…to spread the good news” of the Gospel, he says. “We’ll get that person a whole lot better help than the justice system will ever get them because we’re going to help them find God, and we’re going to use that to stop this cancer that’s going on that’s executed through crime.”
In response to the fires, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards says, “Our churches are sacred, central parts of our communities, and everyone should feel safe in their place of worship.”
Security has been increased in St. Landry, with the sheriff saying he’d personally handcuff the perpetrator.
Fires Raise Fears of Renewed Racism
“Quite naturally, something like this would shake us up,” says Harry Richard, pastor of Greater Union. “I’m very concerned about whether or not this [fire] was intentionally done.”
Black churches were burned as an intimidation tactic during the civil-rights era. Numerous suspicious fires have occurred during the past few years, as well. Racial tension escalated after a white supremacist killed nine black Bible study participants at a Charleston church in 2015.
Browning, Louisiana’s fire marshal, says, “If the hate crime definition was violated, we will certainly vet those things out.” According to FBI data, hate crimes have been on the rise for three straight years, with a 17 percent increase in 2017 alone.
After the Louisiana church fires, civil-rights activist Dr. Benjamin Chavis tweeted: “We will not let terrorism break our faith or stop our struggle for freedom & equality.”