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The burned interior of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church is seen through a rear doorway Thursday, April 11, 2019, on Hwy. 182 South of Opelousas, La. This church and two other historically African-American Baptist churchs in St. Landry Parish were burned in recent weeks. On Thursday, officials announced the arrest of a suspect in the fires.

Donors raised more than $1.6 million in roughly 36 hours to support the three historically black Baptist churches destroyed by arson in St. Landry Parish.

A GoFundMe site hosted by the Seventh District Baptist Association, a coalition of Baptist churches that includes the three destroyed churches, hit its $1.8 million goal around 10:30 p.m. Wednesday. Over 33,000 people have donated to the online campaign.

A Twitter fundraising drive led by journalist Yashar Ali Tuesday called attention to the churches’ need and challenged the public and celebrities to step forward to support the cause. Public figures like actress Kristin Davis, actress and talk show host Busy Philipps, late night host Seth Meyers and conservative commentator Ben Shapiro were among the early donors.

Ali and others referenced the tragic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris when encouraging others to donate, noting reconstruction of the architectural and religious landmark would be well funded while the three St. Landry churches didn’t have the benefit of the same resources.

Corporations, billionaires and the public have already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild the storied cathedral.

Former Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also drew attention to the cause online, urging followers to “send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana” even as they keep Paris in their thoughts.

As a result of the publicity, the Seventh District’s GoFundMe was one of the top global fundraising campaigns on the fundraising website by early Tuesday afternoon.

According to their website, GoFundMe does not subtract a platform fee from donations, but a transaction fee of 2.9 percent plus an additional $.30 per transaction is taken out by payment processors like PayPal.

The Rev. Freddie Jack, president of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, said watching the GoFundMe meter increase has been an awesome experience.

“Like a skyrocket,” he said.

Jack said watching it intently has been too nerve-racking, and instead he’s asked members of his church to check on the meter and give him updates. He said he’s grateful for the kindness and generosity the public is showing.

“I’m just thankful for people responding as they are to meet the needs of these three pastors,” Jack said. “It feels awesome to know that people you’ve never met, never had a conversation with, are calling you and telling you who they are and offering to help. From the east to the west they’re reaching out and contributing to our needs.”

One of the first higher profile public pledges of support came from retired Saints tight end Ben Watson, who last week reached out to the pastors of the three churches.

"While I reserve judgment on the man arrested for this crime until proven guilty, the fact that black churches were burned to the ground is a reminder of the fear and pain so many communities have repeatedly experienced since emancipation," Watson said. "This trauma resides deep within all of us, black and white, in America."

Local businesses and organizations have also stepped up to pledge their support for the three churches.

On Tuesday, IberiaBank announced it was making a $6,000 donation to the churches in conjunction with Giles’ Automotive’s Giles Gives Back to St. Landry Churches campaign.

“One of the hallmarks of our company is to support our community in meaningful ways,” said Jerry Vascocu, Executive Vice President and Acadiana President for IberiaBank. “We are very proud to help restore these historic churches in support the parishioners and commend Bob Giles for setting up this effort to engage the entire Acadiana community to help our friends in St. Landry Parish.”

Giles Automotive on Friday announced the start of its 30-day Giles Gives Back campaign to help raise money for the three St. Landry Parish churches.

During the 30 days, Giles Automotive will match donations up to $50,000.

“When I heard about what happened to these churches I knew Giles Automotive had to lend a hand," Bob Giles, dealer principal, said. "Our motto is giving back to the community, and I can’t think of a more deserving group than these churches that have stood strong in the community for more than 100 years.”

Authorities have charged Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a St. Landry Sheriff's deputy from Opelousas, with hate crimes and arson related to the three fires.

The three churches — St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, Greater Union Baptist Church in Opelousas and Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Opelousas — burned down between March 26 and April 4.

The pastors from all three churches say they have received offers of help from around the state and country, and they’re working to organize formal recovery efforts.

The Rev. Harry Richard of Greater Union Baptist Church said the public’s outpouring of love has been overwhelming and uplifting.

“I think that God has allowed this to happen to really bring us closer together,” Richard said. “God always intervenes with love…It’s the kind of love we’re getting now that will carry us forward.”

The pastors said they’re currently working through the insurance process and are trying to assess what financial coverage a claim will provide and what’s needed to rebuild their congregations’ worship houses.

At a press conference Thursday, Louisiana State Fire Marshal H. “Butch” Browning said his office is working closely with the pastors to ensure their new building designs meet code requirements and can efficiently pass through the permitting process so rebuilding can begin right away.

An earlier version of this story misspelled Busy Philipps' last name. The Advocate regrets the error. 


Follow Katie Gagliano on Twitter, @katie_gagliano.