LAFAYETTE, La. — The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are assisting with a state investigation after three black churches were burned down in Louisiana within days of each other.
During a news conference, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning divulged that there are “suspicious elements” in with each fire, and “we do believe that crimes have occurred.”
The fires all occurred within St. Landry Parish, with the first being at St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26. Last Tuesday, April 2, the Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas went up in flames. On Thursday, Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was similarly destroyed by fire.
“At first we thought it might have been an electrical problem, but then when the second church … burning occurred, I realized it was our sister church,” Freddie Jack, president of the the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, told CNN. “Then, two days later the third occurred. So at least [to] me, [it] made me think that we’re being targeted.”
“We don’t know why, we don’t know when, we don’t know who,” Gerald Toussaint, the pastor of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, told local television station KATC. “We will let the authorities handle that, but we just know a higher power and a higher authority who can bring this thing to fruition.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked Browning and other officials to “aggressively investigate” the fires, and used his State of the State address on Monday to decry what appears to be an orchestrated attack.
“Churches are sacred places, and no one should fear for their safety in their house of worship,” he said. “And no one should be concerned that their house of worship would be destroyed.”
Browning’s office is seeking any tips and information from the public, which can be submitted anonymously at 800-256-5452.
“We are falling short of talking about what caused the fires, falling short of saying they are related,” he said. “However, [we are] cognizant that there is a problem and [it is] no coincidence that there are three fires.”
The churches involved state that while the fires have shocked and saddened them, the flames have not destroyed their spirit. Toussaint told his congregation on Sunday that the building may have been destroyed, but not the Church.
“It caused us to pray harder and pray more frequently,” he told KATC. “This is the time for us to pull together.”
Harry Richard, pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, told the outlet that he hopes the fire wasn’t intentional, but if so, “I just pray for the individual, that God will speak to their heart and stop them from doing this kind of thing.”
“Our members here are faithful people. They’re committed to serving God. I believe that we can stick together and continue our worshiping of God. He’s going to bring us together and we’re going to start over again,” he said.
A fourth fire occurred on March 31 at Vivian United Pentecostal Church in Caddo Parish. It is not believed that the fire is connected to the other three, but the incident was deemed to be arson.