Notre-Dame fire donations brings burnt Louisiana black churches into focus

by Samuel Abasi Posted on April 17th, 2019

The outpouring of generosity in response to the fire at Notre-Dame cathedral has led to a renewed focus on fundraising for black churches in the United States which were destroyed by an arsonist earlier this year.

On Monday as French firefighters tackled the blaze at the 850-year-old building, Louisiana resident Megan Romer tweeted her sadness over the cathedral’s destruction.

However, she also took the opportunity to divert her followers’ attention to three other churches devastated by fire that did not have billionaires queuing up to save them.

“If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish,” Ms Romer wrote.

She was referring were three historically black churches in Louisiana that were subject to arson attacks in late March and earlier this month. St Mary Baptist Church, the Greater Union Baptist Church and the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church were razed to the ground.

When Ms Romer wrote her appeal, the fundraising page of the three churches was far short of its $1.8m goal – with fewer than $100,000 raised.

While acknowledging the huge importance of the French cathedral, she wrote: “Remember that famous history isn’t the only history. Imagine the courage it took to build and fill a black house of worship in post-bellum rural Louisiana. And now.”

She also reminded people that the parish had been the site of the deadly Opelousas massacre in 1868.

Since Monday, her tweet has been shared more than 37,000 times as word spread all over social media. Influential figures like Hillary Clinton and CNN anchor Jake Tapper pushed the fundraising page to their followers.

“The rebuild of Notre-Dame will be well-funded,” wrote journalist Yashar Ali, who donated $1,000 to the fund.

On Wednesday, total donations for the three churches passed $1m with more than 18,000 people donating.

“It shows that the church is not only fireproof, but it’s also faith-proof,” Pastor Mason Jack told local news channel News15. “To get calls from New York, and across the country and to show love for our sister churches means a whole lot to us,” he said.

All three of the Louisiana fires were started with gasoline and occurred around Opelousas, about 60 miles (100km) west of the state capital of Baton Rouge.

Holden Matthews, 21, a son of a local police deputy was arrested over the fires and has now been charged with hate crimes. He pleaded not guilty during a court appearance on Monday.

During the search for a suspect, Governor John Bel Edwards said the attacks were a reminder “of a very dark past of intimidation and fear”.

EARLIER: Suspect in fires at Louisiana black churches charged with hate crimes

Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Holden Matthews, the white man arrested for burning down three historically black churches in Louisiana will remain in jail, denied bond Monday by a judge, as state prosecutors added new charges declaring the arsons a hate crime. Holden Matthews, 21, the son of a sheriff’s deputy, entered his not guilty plea via video conference from the St. Landry Parish jail. The judge set a September trial date.

In denying bail, state District Judge James Doherty sided with law enforcement officials who said they worried Matthews would try to flee the area or set more fires.

“We felt that he was an immediate risk to public safety,” said Louisiana Fire Marshal Butch Browning. “In my mind, I felt another fire was imminent.”

Testifying in court, Browning outlined a litany of evidence, including some new details of the investigation that he said tied Matthews to the torching of the three churches over 10 days.

“The evidence we have was unequivocal,” Browning said. Later he added: “He has clearly demonstrated the characteristics of a pathological fire setter.”

The fire marshal described cellphone records placing Matthews at the fire locations, and he said images on the phone showed all three churches burning before law enforcement arrived and showed Matthews “claiming responsibility” for the fires.

Matthews, who had no previous criminal record, was arrested Wednesday on three charges of arson of a religious building. Prosecutors filed documents Monday adding three more charges, accusing Matthews of violating Louisiana’s hate crime law, confirming that they believe the fires were racially motivated, a link authorities had previously stopped short of making.

Browning said federal officials also are considering filing additional federal hate crime and arson charges against Matthews.

Matthews, shackled and wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, did not speak during the hearing. His parents watched their son’s appearance on video conference from the courtroom; his father, Deputy Roy Matthews, repeatedly wrung his hands and at one point left the room in tears.

Roy Matthews had no knowledge of his son’s alleged crimes, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz, who employs the father, previously said. Guidroz said the elder Matthews “broke down” when he called him into his office to inform him of the allegations, and later helped facilitate his son’s arrest.

The fires, all started with gasoline, occurred in and around Opelousas, about 60 miles west of Louisiana’s capital city of Baton Rouge.

Matthews’ arrest came a little more than two weeks after the first blaze at the St. Mary Baptist Church on March 26 in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.

The churches were empty at the time, and no one was injured. But at one location, two occupants of a nearby home had to evacuate when the siding on the home started to catch fire from the church.

The fires set the community on edge. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the church burnings were a reminder “of a very dark past of intimidation and fear.”

Matthews’ attorney, Quincy Cawthorne, questioned some of the evidence cited by Browning and said Matthews didn’t have the financial means to be a flight risk. He also objected to suggestions that the house near one of the churches was intentionally set on fire, putting the residents’ lives in danger.

Prosecutors, through Browning’s testimony, gave more insight into the evidence that law enforcement used to build their case against Matthews.

The fire marshal said a receipt shows Matthews bought a gas can and a package of oil rags similar to those found at the site of the fires. A lighter and the package of oil rags, missing some of its contents, were found in Matthews’ truck, Browning said. He said Matthews documented the fire on his cellphone, while video surveillance in the area around the churches showed a truck similar to the one Matthews drives. Matthews had copies of news reports about the fires on his phone as well, Browning said.

“He actually superimposed himself on those news reports, claiming responsibility for these fires,” Browning said.

In addition, Browning said video on Matthews’ phone showed a conversation with a friend before the fires in which he talked about burning churches and using gasoline to do it.

Browning said previously authorities are eyeing Matthews’ interest in “black metal,” an extreme subgenre of heavy metal. The music has been linked, in some instances, to fires at Christian churches in Norway in the 1990s.

The fire marshal said Matthews posted on Facebook about and showed interest in a movie called “Lords of Chaos,” a recent film about the Norwegian black metal scene and associated violence in the 1990s.

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