Over the span of ten days in late March and early April three predominantly African American churches in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, were destroyed by fire. Although the fires received some media attention, the overwhelming international response to this week’s fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris inadvertently helped bring the Louisiana churches’ plight to the attention of a wider audience.
Between March 26 and April 4, St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, all three part of the Seventh District Baptist Association in southwest Louisiana, were set on fire. On April 10, 21-year-old Holden Matthews, the son of a St. Landry sheriff’s deputy, was arrested and charged with arson; on April 15, prosecutors added charges declaring the fires were racially-motivated and classifying them as hate crimes. Although the fires garnered some media attention, early coverage was sparse.
Yet as Notre Dame burned earlier this week, filling the the news cycle with stories about the historic cathedral and the many pledges of financial support to rebuild, many people, including prominent public figures, began questioning where the public outcry and media coverage had been when the three churches were being torched only weeks prior, spurring major media coverage of the Louisiana hate crimes.
In an interview with the New York Times, the president of the Baptist association, Freddie Jack, explained the financial difficulty of rebuilding from the fires, starting that the churches had only insurance and one was paying off a mortgage on a recent addition. Furthermore, newer building codes following Hurricane Katrina have made it costlier to build in that area. As of Tuesday morning, a GoFundMe campaign started by the finance secretary of the Seventh District Baptist Association for rebuilding the three churches had only received a small fraction of the funding it was seeking; it had raised just over $92,000 of its $1.8 million goal.
Through the power of social media sharing, though, the campaign reached its goal on Wednesday night and, as of this afternoon, has raised just under $2 million. The campaign has been shared more than 153,000 times on Facebook alone and has received donations from more than 36,000 people. On Wednesday, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, shared the GoFundMe page on Twitter, writing, “As we hold Paris in our thoughts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana. Three historically black churches have burned in recent weeks, charring buildings and scattering communities.”
The churches have a strong resolve to build, though, and are aided by the prayers and financial assistance of thousands of donors who shared their good wishes in comments on the GoFundMe page.
The Rev. Gerald Toussaint, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, told ABC, “the church is not that building. The church is the people…If we stay together as a congregation, the church is alive and well…We can rebuild the building as long as we stay together.”