Arrest made over 3 black churches burned in Louisiana parish

by Samuel Abasi Last updated on April 16th, 2019,

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Holden Matthews, a sheriff’s deputy’s son was charged with 3 counts of arson over fires that burned down 3 historic Black churches in Louisiana. Holden Matthews faces up to 15 years per charge. Federal authorities are investigating it as a possible hate crime.

Authorities have arrested a person in connection with suspicious fires at three historic black churches in southern Louisiana, a federal prosecutor said. U.S. Attorney David C. Joseph announced late Wednesday that the suspect is in state custody, and said federal agents stand shoulder to shoulder with the victims of “these despicable acts.” A Thursday news conference at the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office is planned.

The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre last month. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old, with mostly African American congregations.

The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured.

Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning, who declared all three fires suspicious, said “If you’re going to turn to a house of God, turn to it for resurrection.”

The investigation was joined by the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and many people from state agencies in Louisiana.

The Rev. Harry Richard of Greater Union Baptist Church told the Advocate newspaper last week that he didn’t want people to panic or leap to conclusions while investigators were doing their work.

“I don’t know who’s doing it or why they’re doing it, but I don’t want to be the one to inject race into it,” he said.

‘They Didn’t Burn Down Our Spirit’

As the authorities investigated a series of blazes that destroyed three black churches, residents gathered Sunday with a mix of concern and defiance.

Much of Monica Harris’s identity is tied to the Greater Union Baptist Church, a 129-year-old sanctuary that has been at the center of her family for generations. As a child, she was dunked into a baptismal basin and then paraded like a princess up the aisle in a white dress and white patent leather shoes. She was married at the church, and she said goodbye to her parents there, too.

And so she felt like a piece of her was missing when she set eyes upon the charred remains of Greater Union, one of three predominantly black churches in St. Landry Parish, La., that law enforcement authorities said were set ablaze and destroyed over the stretch of 10 days.

“Seeing the church in the condition it is now,” Ms. Harris, 57, said of the tan brick sanctuary where her parents raised their 12 children and where they celebrated dozens of weddings, funerals and Bible studies, “it’s almost like losing a family member.”

It was still not known Monday whether the fires were intentionally set or whether they were motivated by racism. Still, they have drawn the attention of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the F.B.I., which are assisting the Louisiana state fire marshal. The authorities said Monday that they were vetting new information every hour and that an A.T.F. crane had arrived at one of the churches to help process the scene.

Representative Clay Higgins, a Republican representing the area, said in an interview on Monday that based on information from the investigators and his own observations of the crime scenes, “the method of each burn is notably the same,” suggesting that the fires were related. A day earlier, Mr. Higgins, who left his job as a captain in the local sheriff’s office after he referred to alleged gang members who were black as “animals,” posted a video to Facebook directed at whoever burned down the churches.

“Your only path to freedom is through jail,” he told the camera as he stood before a pile of charred bricks and rubble that is now St. Mary Baptist Church in nearby Port Barre. “Turn yourself in because you’re going to jail, one way or the other.”

Over the weekend, as the authorities worked to sort out what happened, black residents gathered for services with a mix of befuddlement, concern and defiance.

“They burned down a building,” the Rev. Harry J. Richard of Greater Union preached at a makeshift gathering Sunday in Opelousas. “They didn’t burn down our spirit.”

Two of the fires took place in Opelousas — at Greater Union and Mount Pleasant Baptist — and the third was at St. Mary Baptist in Port Barre. Officials reported a fourth, smaller fire that was “intentionally set” at a predominantly white church in Caddo Parish, about three hours north.

In his State of the State address on Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards called the fires “disturbing.” “Churches are sacred places, and no one should fear for their safety in their house of worship,” he said.

The blazes have evoked uneasy recollections of racist attacks on black churches across the country. But parishioners and residents said they would also let the investigation unfold before making any judgments about what the fires might say about their community, which is just north of Lafayette.

With a black population — nearly 42 percent — that is larger than many of the surrounding areas, St. Landry Parish is a place where an eccentric black Republican politician and lawyer has defended Klansmen in court, and where a nondenominational Christian congregation has attracted a diverse crowd and grown so much that it recently broke ground on a new $12 million, 43,000-square-foot building.

“We are a very close-knit society here in St. Landry Parish,” said Elbert Guillory, 75, a former Republican state senator from Opelousas who defended the Klansmen. “There are good relationships within the black community and there are very good relationships interracially. And so you’d have to wonder, where does this come from? Who’s doing it and for what reason?”

Tamiko Chatman, 48, who is black and who was born and raised in Opelousas, said it has never been a place where black and white residents seemed to clash. But people did not interact much across racial lines when she was growing up, she said.

In high school, mostly black students attended the prom that was organized by the school, she said, while white students held their own prom elsewhere.

Still, she said, some divisions can be found today in the town of more than 16,000 residents, three-quarters of whom are black. It has a strong ecumenical church community, but events tend to draw either mostly white people or mostly black people, depending on which congregation is hosting.

And some community members still have problems with interracial relationships, said Clayre Savage, 19, who is white and who said her grandparents discouraged her from dating outside her race. There were uneasy feelings, too, among some classmates when black students started being bused to their mostly white middle school campus because of a desegregation program that had stemmed from a court case.

Still, Ms. Savage said she had a difficult time believing that racism would be behind the church burnings, because she had not personally witnessed that sort of behavior in her community.

Greater Union members, too, said they were puzzled. They said they had not experienced open racial hostilities in St. Landry Parish, a predominantly agricultural community with a deep pride in a francophone heritage that has spawned rich culinary and cultural traditions, like boudin and zydeco, and where one in four residents live in poverty.

“I can’t comprehend that at all,” Ms. Harris said. “There was really nothing per se that led up to it.”

While church burnings might seem like a vestige from the country’s Jim Crow past, there have been notable instances in recent memory.

In 1996, three black churches burned on the same night in Baton Rouge, and the authorities determined that the fires were a hate crime committed by a group of young adults. Shortly after Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, several black churches were set ablaze in Southern states, though it was unclear whether the fires were racially motivated.

“For decades, African-American churches have served as the epicenter of survival and a symbol of hope for many in the African-American community,” Derrick Johnson, the N.A.A.C.P. president, said in a statement on Monday condemning the fires. “As a consequence, these houses of faith have historically been the targets of violence.”

Many of the 100 or so congregants at Greater Union are related. The church sits on land with a cemetery where many of its former members are buried, including Ms. Harris’s parents, Joseph Jr. and Hilda Guidry, who died two months apart last year.

Preaching from a white, windowless room in the low-slung Masonic Lodge in Opelousas, Mr. Richard said he wanted to deliver a message to whoever was behind the fires. He had an usher place an empty chair next to his brown lectern, a seat for someone he called “Mr. Firestarter.”

“We forgive you, Mr. Firestarter,” Mr. Richard said, his voice rising and straining with each sentence. “We love you, Mr. Firestarter. We thank you because you didn’t burn up our children. Our prayer for you, Mr. Firestarter, is that you meet our savior.”

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Samuel Abasi

Samuel Abasi

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