On March 26, 2019, someone set fire to St. Mary Baptist Church in Louisiana's St. Landry Parish. On April 2 and April 4, respectively, Greater Union Baptist and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church also became targets for arson. All three churches were historically black churches, and home to majority black congregations; all three churches stood miles from each other. On Wednesday, April 10, police have arrested a 21-year-old suspect in connection to all three fires, CBS reports.
According to local news outlet KATC, the suspect has been charged with three counts of simple arson of a religious building, and faces up to 15 years in prison on each count. The suspect is white, and a son of a sheriff's deputy; per CBS, St. Landry Parish Sheriff Bobby Guidroz corrected previous reports that the deputy had turned his son in. The father "helped facilitate the arrest, [and] got the suspect away from home" but the work was part of a concerted effort from law enforcement that included the FBI, Guidroz said.
Many parishioners had been members of their churches for decades, if not longer. Pastor Harry Richard, who presides over Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas, LA, told CBS that his grandfather, who helped found the church "left a legacy for me and I was trying to fulfill that to the best of my ability."
Per The Advocate, Greater Union Baptist and Mount Pleasant Baptist communities are asking that anyone looking to help them rebuild the churches send donations via check rather than on crowdfunding websites, as they worry about people setting up lookalike accounts in an effort to defraud those trying to send aid. St. Mary Baptist Church has set up a crowdfunding option on the church's website; Rev. Kyle Sylvester also told the Advocate that those looking to help could also send donations via mail.
In a press conference on Thursday, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards called the arsons "hateful acts." A 2015 Huff Post report found that there have been over 100 attacks on black churches since 1956.
State Fire Marshall H. Butch Browning added, "I can never give total condolences to these church communities for the losses of their places of worship. However, I hope this begins to help their healing.”
"What is happening in Tennessee and Louisiana is domestic terrorism and we must not turn a blind eye to any incident where people are targeted because of the color of their skin and their faith," NAACP President Derrick Johnson said in a statement obtained by ABC. "The spike in church burnings in the Southern states is a reflection of emboldened racial rhetoric and tension spreading across the country. But this is nothing new. 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 targets of violence."
The Cut reports that St. Mary Baptist Church had been burned almost entirely to the ground. Of the attack, Rev. Sylvester told CBS, "We can't let this setback stop us from doing what God initially called us to do."