Even after learning more about the person accused of setting fire to their churches, displaced pastors and congregations in St. Landry Parish have focused on love, forgiveness and celebration. Those themes were on full display again Sunday afternoon as Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards led a unity service at Little Zion Baptist Church in Opelousas.

"Hate is not a Louisiana value," Edwards told the congregation. "We will not be measured by what happened here in this community by the acts of that young man, but we will be measured rather by how we respond, which is what we're doing today. It's what we'll be doing for the next several weeks and several months. Hate is not a Louisiana value, so I'm just going to ask you to continue to spread that light into the world."

Edwards was received with a standing ovation before and after his sermon-like address to the congregation. He was even declared an honorary pastor at the end of the service.

"You all in this community and in these congregations have provided an example of faith for me that inspires me and an example for the state of Louisiana," Edwards said. "And I've had a lot of people reach out and tell me especially since Thursday just how inspired they have been by this community, and I wanted to be sure you know that."

On Thursday, Edwards and investigators held a news conference to discuss the arrest of Holden Matthews, 21, who is accused in the string of arsons that destroyed three predominately black Baptist churches in St. Landry Parish in a 10-day span. The first was St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre on March 26, followed by Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 2 and finally Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas on April 4.


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The three targeted churches have been active in the community for more than 100 years, and families worshiped in the buildings for generations. Congregants at several churches said they’ve never worshiped anywhere else, and they’re struggling to grasp that a source of solace and constancy in their lives is gone.

"I think even with everything that was going on and was done to these churches in the fires, we can still come together and forgive our brother," said Chantelle Sylvester, who attended Sunday's service. "We're just staying unified in faith."

Sylvester has been a member of St. Mary Baptist Church for five years, and she said she felt mixed emotions over the arrest of Matthews.

"I felt a sense of relief just because of the unknown being resolved," Sylvester said. "But I also feel sadness for his parents, his relatives, his family for what they have to go through with it as well."

Celina Richard, who has been a member of Greater Union Missionary Baptist Church for 53 years, said she also felt mixed emotions over Matthews' arrest.

"I was happy someone was caught, but I was sad because of what the individual had done," Richard said. "We need to pray, not only for ourselves, not only for our city, not only for our state, but we need to pray for these young people all over the world. We have missed the mark somewhere, and we need to correct our mistake because that one individual could spark a fire in others, and we don't ever want that to happen."

Officials said they have yet to determine Matthews' motivation, but Louisiana Fire Marshal H. "Butch" Browning said Matthews was associated with a type of music called "black metal," which is "associated with church burnings."

Browning also received a standing ovation during Sunday's service for his work in the arson investigation.

"I was very humbled, but it's really about everybody who worked on this case as a team," Browning said after the service. "It's very uplifting for me and all the investigators to see this sense of spirituality and sense of forgiveness in this community."

Follow Megan Wyatt on Twitter, @MeganWyattACA.