Local and state law enforcement and fire officials discussed the three church fires that have broken out in St. Landry Parish at a press conference Thursday.
Ryan Mills, firstname.lastname@example.org; 239-263-4784
LAFAYETTE, La. – Fires that destroyed three predominantly black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish in the last 10 days are clearly “suspicious, the state’s top fire investigator said Thursday, adding that they’ve discovered several “patterns” at the three crime scenes.
But it’s too soon to classify the fires as arson, State Fire Marshal Butch Browning said at a press conference, walking a tight line without actually linking the three blazes.
“There certainly is a commonality,” he said. “Whether that leads to a person or persons or groups, we just don’t know. And that’s not unusual for us not to know at this point.”
The fact that it is three black Baptist churches in the same parish is obviously a pattern. “And there are several other patterns,” Browning added.
The third St. Landry Parish church fire in 10 days erupted early Thursday at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church south of Opelousas.
Mount Pleasant is about 10 miles south of Greater Union Baptist Church, which burned down early Tuesday. St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre was destroyed in a fire early in the morning on March 26.
St. Landry Fire District 3 received a 911 call about the Thursday fire at about 3:40 a.m., said Ashley Rodrigue, a spokeswoman for the State Fire Marshal’s Office.
The fire consumed the inside of the rural church, burning holes through the roof, but leaving much of the brick exterior standing. At daybreak, smoke continued rising from the historic structure.
State troopers had a section of the highway in front of Mount Pleasant blocked off early Thursday.
The Rev. Gerald Toussaint, who leads Mount Pleasant, said he was heartbroken when he saw what remained of his church, which he said is more than 140 years old.
“My church has a lot of history,” he said. “I don’t understand it. What could make a person do that to a church?”
Toussaint, who works full time as a truck driver, said he was on his way to work in Lafayette when he received news of the fire from his wife. He immediately turned around and headed to the church.
“By the time I got back here, it was gone,” he said. “It burned hot and fast.”
St. Landry Sheriff Bobby Guidroz said he is working with Opelousas police to provide extra security and patrols to the parish’s churches. He said he’s willing to do “whatever it takes to prevent these fires” and to “try to catch this individual.”
“We have a lot of churches in this parish. Lots of churches,” Guidroz said. “We’re going to take it one day at a time and try to provide the security that they need.”
In addition to the State Fire Marshal, the St. Landry Parish Sheriff’s Office and the St. Landry Fire District 3, the Opelousas Police Department, the Louisiana Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI also are investigating the fires.
“Our churches are sacred, central parts of our communities and everyone should feel safe in their place of worship,” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a written statement.
In general, church fires are not uncommon in the United States, according to National Fire Prevention Association data. There were about 1,660 fires in religious and funeral properties in 2011, with the vast majority of those occurring on religious properties.
Intentionally set fires account for only about 16 percent of fires at religious properties in the U.S. That’s still more than 250 fires per year, said Greg Harrington, a fire protection engineer with the NFPA.
“Having a string of fires like you’ve experienced down there in such a short period of time, I would say its safe to say that’s unusual,” Harrington said. “It certainly seems appropriate that they’ve been deemed suspicious.”
The United States has a long and complicated history of church arson, which was common during the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, white supremacists attacked black churches for both symbolic and practical reasons. They often served as strategic command posts for the civil rights movement, said Christopher Strain, a professor of American studies at Florida Atlantic University and the author of “Burning Faith: Church Arson in the American South.”
A 1996 House Judiciary Committee report found an out-sized percentage of church arsons were at black churches in the South.
But Strain said not every instance of church arson is hate-based or racially motivated.
“Churches burn for a variety of reasons,” he said, “and because they are often unoccupied, they are ripe targets for ‘firebugs’ and vandals. Arsonists are drawn to inviting targets, and churches unfortunately often make inviting targets.”
Browning, the State Fire Marshal’s Office chief, said there are many reasons people burn churches, including to disguise burglaries and because of religious disagreements.
He pointed out that the three churches burned in St. Landry were vulnerable because of their remote locations.
“These buildings are kind of off the beaten path, kind of out of town,” he said.
Leaders of several of the parish’s black Baptist churches met Thursday morning at First Benjamin Baptist Church to talk about the fires, discuss options for protecting their buildings and to offer one another support.
The Rev. Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, said he is encouraging members to install security systems and surveillance cameras, make sure they have adequate insurance and to consider hiring security guards.
The churches that haven’t been affected by fires are offering their facilities to the churches that have burned, he said.
“We don’t want nobody losing their members,” he said.
Jack said the local Baptist pastors aren’t afraid, but they’re concerned about the fires.
“They remain optimistic. Other than that, we’re going to do everything necessary to try to prevent any re-occurrence,” Jack said. “We’re just going to trust in believe in God to prevent this from happening.”
Contributing: Bobby Ardoin
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