It’s been two months since three historically black Baptist churches were burned by an arsonist, and as donation money is disbursed to the churches the pastors say they’re finally able to make headway toward rebuilding.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, met with the Rev. Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and the Rev. Harry Richard of Greater Union Baptist Church, as well as representatives from the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, to check on the status of the churches during Congressional recess.
The two Opelousas churches, along with St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, were burned down over a 10-span between March 26 and April 4. Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old St. Landry Parish deputy’s son, was arrested in the case and charged with multiple arson and state hate crimes counts.
“I’m just sorry. I know how’d I feel if my little church in Madisonville was burned down and it doesn’t have nearly the tradition, the history and the heritage that y’all’s churches had,” Kennedy said.
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The senator and pastors met in a community space in a strip mall off North Main Street in Opelousas on Wednesday afternoon.
The men huddled in a corner of the room, speaking about faith, the cost of rebuilding and reckoning with the crime and its aftermath. They talked about the arsons’ effect on their faith and grappling with the idea that bad things can happen to good people, but not letting it shake their resolve in God’s plan.
“It’s hard for me to go walk around the church because you feel helpless,” Toussaint said.
The men agreed that despite the trials there have been bright spots. The community outpouring of support was one, and the ability to witness about the work of God was another. Toussaint noted Matthews’ capture was evidence God was present in the process.
Richard said despite the struggles he’s glad God chose them for this trial because it allows the pastors to gain a deeper understanding of suffering and better serve their congregations.
“We as leaders, we have to understand suffering in order to fulfill our role,” Richard said.
Toussaint agreed, adding: “I’m happy he chose us instead of people that would fall apart in this situation.”
Kennedy said he was impressed by the endurance of the pastors’ faith and their ability to express forgiveness and compassion toward Matthews. In their conversation, Richard echoed his desire to meet Matthews to ask why he targeted his church specifically.
The senator said he wasn’t sure he’d be able to show the same kindness if the roles were reversed. He said he doesn’t know Matthews’ motive but believes he should be tried to the fullest extent of the law.
“He ought to be charged under every statute we can find applicable. I don’t think it’s unchristian to say that. God gave us free will, but with free will goes responsibility,” Kennedy said.
While the case inches toward its fall trial date, the churches are beginning the first steps of rebuilding.
Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, said private donations and money collected from the association’s GoFundMe page will be presented to the pastors of the three destroyed churches Sunday at the Seventh District’s annual conference in Lake Charles. The GoFundMe for the churches went viral in mid-April and raised more than $2 million in less than three days.
Jack estimated the final fundraising total was around $2.6 million and each church would receive over $800,000. He said the money would be presented in ceremonial checks to the pastors during an evening celebration at the conference.
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Richard said crews are currently working to clear the property at Greater Union Baptist Church off La. 742. An excavator was running at the site on Wednesday before the meeting with Kennedy, moving rubble and clearing charred debris.
Richard said his church has a rebuilding committee in place and they’re reviewing information from various architects and contractors to assess offers, possible costs and determine what they need from a new building. He said he expects the clean up efforts to last about a month, and then dirt work will begin to prepare for a new concrete slab foundation.
Toussaint said they’re waiting to clear the property at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on La. 182 until they receive the donation check this weekend. He said the church’s committee wants to get a full idea of the budget they can work with before entering contracts or coordinating with insurance.
The pastor said he’s excited to build a new facility but having a nice worship house won’t matter if the building costs drain the church’s coffers and they aren’t able to maintain the building. Toussaint said he hopes to have an architect and contractor secured in the next several weeks and to begin clearing the property by next month.
A representative for St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre was not present at the meeting.
Jay Vicknair, Sen. Kennedy’s deputy state director, and Tyrone Glover, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, met with the pastors after the official gathering to review possible federal grant applications that could benefit the destroyed churches.
Vicknair said the Department of Homeland Security’s Nonprofit Security Grant could allow the churches to purchase security systems, including motion and sound detecting sensors, and could also allow them to undergo security training, among other measures. The grant is administered through the Federal Emergency Management Association.
Vicknair and Glover said their congressmen wanted to ensure the churches were aware of the federal resources available to them.
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