As a bulwark, a sacred refuge and a safe place to organize against racism and bigotry, the Black church has been indispensable. To see one of them engulfed in flames, particularly if burned by haters, is to experience unrelieved grief.
Sadly, the Black community is once again enduring that nightmarish experience as three historically Black churches have burned in less than two weeks in Louisiana. Located in the same parish, each church fire, according to investigating officials, has evidence of “suspicious elements” and arson has not been ruled out.
The fires occurred on March 26 in St. Landry Parish, just north of Lafayette. Another fire occurred in nearby Caddo Parish, about a three-hour drive away.
Ashley Rodriquez, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Office of State Fire Marshal, said they have yet to conclude that the fires are connected. That, she said, is still under investigation.
Local law enforcement announced Thursday that Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old white male, of St. Landry Parish has been arrested in connection with the recent Black church fires in Louisiana. He is charged with three counts of simple arson on a religious building. Matthews is the son of Sheriff Deputy Roy Matthews.
In the late ’60s and again in the ’90s, the nation experienced a rash of church burnings, mainly where Blacks worshipped. It was such an epidemic in the late ’90s that the National Council of Churches of Christ intervened to assist the burned churches, providing counseling, fundraising, investigation and the rebuilding of the churches.
Through its Burned Churches Project, the organization raised more than $10 million in 1996 for the rebuilding of more than 120 burned churches.
Habitat for Humanity and the NAACP joined the Council in that effort, and while the rage of fires eventually subsided, it was nonetheless a harrowing period that was probably on Derrick Johnson’s mind as he issued his statement about the recent burnings.
“What is happening in Tennessee and Louisiana is domestic terrorism,” said Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, “and we must not turn a blind eye to any incident where people are targeted because of the color of their skin or their faith. The spike in church burnings in Southern states is a reflection of the emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country. But this is nothing new.”
He continued, “For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community. As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence. The NAACP stands vigilant to ensure that authorities conduct full investigations.”
Bishop John Milton, the pastor of Imani Temple in Lafayette and the religious affairs director of the NAACP branch in the city, said on Wednesday that the investigation includes the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, and the state fire marshal’s office. “But there’s not much new information, at least they have not shared it with us,” he said.
“Obviously, this has a devastating impact on our community, and perhaps the entire nation,” Milton added. “And we feel that this is just another aspect of the rise of hate crimes in the country and all of this may stem from national politics.”
Christopher Strain, who studied the wave of Black church burnings of the 1990s in his book, “Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South,” said that church arsons linked to hate crimes tend to spike alongside the general rise in hate crimes.