Pence letter.jpg

A thank you letter from Vice President of the United States Mike Pence to Pastor Ronald Freeman and the congregation of St. John Baptist Church in Opelousas. 

Congregants at St. John Baptist Church in Opelousas enjoyed a special surprise at Sunday service — a thank-you letter from Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence came to St. Landry Parish in early May to meet with the congregants of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church after the three historic black St. Landry churches were destroyed by an arsonist between March 26 and April 4.

The accused arsonist, Holden Matthews, was charged with arson and hate crime counts in both state and federal court.

St. John Baptist member Tyrone Glover, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, helped facilitate Pence’s visit and secured use of St. John’s van to transport congregants and the affected pastors to the meeting. The group met at the St. Landry Parish Veterans Memorial on La. 182, about 3 miles from Mt. Pleasant Baptist, and were shuttled to the church, he said.

Glover, St. John’s brotherhood president, said the vice president thanked the St. John congregation for their generosity in donating the van, and his team later followed up with news of the thank-you letter. He received the letter on Aug. 19 but kept it a secret to surprise his fellow churchgoers.

“Little Opelousas — they could have forgotten about us, but they didn’t. They remembered. It showed great character on the part of the vice president and his office for remembering St. John Baptist,” he said.

The congregation was “shocked” and “praising God and saying thank you” when the letter was read at Sunday service, Glover said.

“St. John Baptist Church, along with so many other churches in the St. Landry Parish, was a tremendous help in a time of great hurt and great need in Opelousas, and I was inspired to see people of faith rise up in love and overcome evil with good,” Pence wrote. “Please know of my heartfelt gratitude to you and your congregation for all of your assistance during my visit.”

Pence’s written thank you echoed the message he shared with congregants during his meeting at Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. The vice president at the time praised the charity, steadfastness and positive example of the recovering congregations and the community members who supported them, applauding them for “overcoming evil with good” and inspiring the nation.

St. John Baptist leader Pastor Ronald Freeman said even now he can hardly describe his feelings surrounding the church arsons. It was painful to see anyone experience it, but it especially hit home because the victims were pastors and residents he knows in the community, he said.

“It was unbelievable to me that someone would feel the need to do something so hurtful and damaging to someone who hadn’t done anything to that person,” Freeman said.

St. Landry church burning suspect said he wanted victims 'to be scared,' used fire images as album art

The pastor said aside from donating use of the van, his congregation, like others in the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association and surrounding area, offered the decimated churches’ use of their sanctuary and resources, fund raised for the congregations and pitched in where they could.

Freeman said he was shocked by Pence’s thank you letter. He said his congregation’s only aim in authorizing the use of the van had been to show kindness and assist the vice president in offering his condolences and support. The pastor said he felt Pence’s gesture was kind and thoughtful.

“It was something we did out of the goodness of our heart, and that was that. We weren’t looking for any recognition. It was just what we should do as Christians. To get the letter was shocking and very appreciated,” Freeman said.

Glover said the letter will be displayed in the church’s foyer.

Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com