Three Black Churches Burned in 10 Days in Louisiana
The Wired Word for the Week of April 14, 2019
In the News
Over just 10 days, three black churches in a single Louisiana parish (similar to a county) have burned, and all three are "suspicious" in origin, say investigators. The three fires occurred on March 26, April 2 and April 4 in St. Landry Parish, north of Lafayette. No one was killed or injured in the fires, as they erupted at night, but all three structures were the homes of active congregations.
The targeted churches were St. Mary's Baptist Church, in Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, both in Opelousas. All three buildings were well over 100 years old and were heavily damaged from the blazes. One burned completely to the ground. In addition to these south-central Louisiana churches, there also was an intentionally set fire at the predominately white Vivian United Pentecostal Church in northwestern Louisiana early on March 31.
The FBI and ATF have joined local law enforcement officers and the state fire marshal in investigating the fires. More than 100 investigators are involved. "Right now, what we have to say is that the fires are suspicious," Louisiana State Fire Marshal Butch Browning told NBC News. "We do believe that crimes have occurred. We believe that the three fires obviously are not coincidental, they are related." Also suspicious is the fact that all three fires took place at parishes that are part of the same district of the Missionary Baptist Association.
TWW has been unable to find statistics covering all houses of worship (that is, regardless of the racial makeup of the congregations) where intentional fires have been set. However, the fact-checking site Snopes states that the National Fire Protection Association reported an average of 280 intentionally set fires at houses of worship annuallyfrom 2007 through 2011 (over 23 per month).
During the Civil Rights era, the burning of black churches was a tactic used to intimidate African-Americans. For Louisianans, these fires also stirred memories of a spate of black church burnings in February 1996, when three black churches and a fourth church building were set ablaze on the same night. Several other set fires in black churches in the United States have happened in the years since, with two occurring on the same night in October 2015. In that case, a 35-year-old black male was arrested for the two fires, and he later pled guilty. Those church fires were two of several in the vicinity of Ferguson, Missouri, and they received national media attention due to racial unrest at that time.
The pastors of the three fire-gutted churches are not jumping to the conclusion that the current fires are racially motivated. Following the third church being set ablaze, NPR's All Things Considered host Michel Martin talked with reporter Katie Gagliano of The Acadiana Advocate. Martin asked whether the history of fire attacks on black churches was "informing people's reactions" to the current church fires in some way.
Gagliano said that it was, and that race was "part of the conversation around these fires." She added "Now, of course, people are still trying to determine, were these churches targeted because they're historically African-American churches in this community?" She acknowledged that the motive is still unknown, but she said she was at a meeting of local pastors, including the pastors of the churches that burned down, and it's something they were discussing.
"But at the same time," Gagliano continued, "they were saying they're praying that this isn't race-based, that this is not the reason. They hope that no one in their community would do this for those reasons. You know, they're preparing themselves to face that if that's the case. But they're also trying not to stoke fear if that is not the case. So they're not at the point yet of saying they think this was a racist incident because they don't want to frighten their communities more than they already are. But if that is the result, they're ready to confront that as a group."
More on this story can be found at these links:
Police Investigate Multiple 'Suspicious' Fires at Historically Black Louisiana Churches. TIME
Louisiana Looks for Answers After Fires Destroy 3 Historically Black Churches. NPR
St. Landry Parish Black Church Fires Stir Memories of 1996 Church Burnings in Baton Rouge Area. The Acadiana Advocate
List of Attacks Against African-American Churches. Wikipedia
Both Ends Burning. Snopes
Applying the News Story
Reading reporter Gagliano's comments about the pastors' discussion at the meeting she attended, we at TWW were struck that despite the history of attacks on black churches, the pastors of these newly burned ones were praying that the current attacks are not for racial reasons. They're preparing themselves to face that if that proves to be the case, but they are leaving open the possibility that what's happened is for some other reason.
In the past, other reasons have included obfuscation (committing several crimes to muddle the trail for one), race hoax (promoting a false racial narrative in support of one's own worldview), specific anger (losing a church position election or failing to have one's pet project approved), general vandalism and others.
In any case, the pastors' willingness to avoid jumping to conclusions led us at TWW to think about the fact that church is a place to learn how to do what doesn't come naturally. For example, if our natural inclination is to be self-centered, Christianity calls us to love our neighbor, to think of others ahead of ourselves. If our instinctive tendency is to hold a grudge, Christianity calls us to be forgiving. If we judge others without facts, Christianity teaches us to look at the log in our own eye. If our instincts also tell us to be self-protective and self-aggrandizing, Christianity teaches us to protect others and to acknowledge our sins. If it's our nature to think of ourselves as in charge of our lives, Christianity calls us to remember that Jesus is Lord.
The Big Questions
1. When has something you heard, learned, felt, or were challenged by in church caused you to change how you behaved or thought?
2. In what ways does going to church reinforce your efforts to live consistently as a follower of Jesus? Are there any ways church attendance hinders your spiritual growth? Explain.
3. How does being in the company of other worshipers on Sunday impact how you act Monday through Saturday?
4. In what ways is what you learn in church a message against the idea that "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear"? What, if anything, keeps you from embracing the church's message?
Confronting the News With Scripture and Hope
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:
Hebrews 6:1-3 (The Message)
So come on, let's leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on "salvation by self-help" and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we'll stay true to all that. But there's so much more. Let's get on with it! (For context, read 6:1-7.)
The author of Hebrews was addressing people who were already followers of Jesus, but he clearly was telling them that receiving Jesus was not an endpoint, but a start on the way to a God-filled, Christ-centered life.
Questions: Does physical maturing usually equate with spiritual maturing? Why or why not? What helps you progress on the spiritual journey? What milestones have you passed? What detours have you taken? When have you arrived at a dead end and had to backtrack? What helped you get back on track?
2 Peter 1:5-8
For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (For context, read 1:3-11.)
Peter here is saying that effective and fruitful faith in God and Christ usually doesn't become an ongoing force in our lives on its own. Rather it needs to be braced up and supported with goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection and love.
Questions: What does your church do to shore up your faith in each of these areas? In what ways do you avail yourself of that help?
2 Corinthians 5:17-19
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. (For context, read 5:16-21.)
The original Greek for "reconciliation" is katallasso. Kata means "together," and lasso means "wrapped" or "tied" -- not unlike the lasso used to rope wild horses. Paul tells us that God was active in Christ, tying the world to himself, wrapping it close to himself in the bond of forgiveness and love. At the same time, God was entrusting the message of tying, wrapping and lassoing to us, asking us to go out into the world as people of Christ.
Questions: In your case, what does it mean that the old has passed away and that in Christ, everything has become new?