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, and the donation total continues to climb as it tops $2 million.

A GoFundMe site started by the Seventh District Missionary 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. More than 36,000 people had donated to the online drive and the campaign has been shared over 150,000 times as of midday Thursday.

The three churches were destroyed in a 10-day span between March 26 and April 4. Holden Matthews, the 21-year-old son of a local sheriff’s deputy, was arrested in the case and charged with aggravated arson, two counts of simple arson and three hate crime counts.

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. When the push began Tuesday morning, the campaign total was roughly $159,000. It was first posted on April 10.

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.

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

“Like a skyrocket,” he said.

Jack said watching it intently was too nerve-racking, and instead he asked members of his church to check on the meter and give him updates. He said the faith leaders and their congregations never expected to reach the total within a week.

He noted how the timeline coincided with the Lord’s seven days of creation, and the symbolism that the goal was reached during resurrection week as Christians around the world prepare to celebrate Easter Sunday.

“We’re giving praise to almighty God for His moving on the hearts of so many people. The pastors are jubilant in spirit. We’re just really overwhelmed,” he said.

Jack said he and the pastors of St. Mary Baptist Church, Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church intend to formally thank each person who donated once things have settled.

“We want to thank each and every giver no matter how great or small their gift may have been. It will be long remembered how people came together from all walks of life, races, ethnicities, backgrounds and denominations to support us,” Jack said.

Jack noted the spike in donations began after a fire tore through Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

Accused St. Landry church arsonist facing hate crime charges; prosecutors present videos of fires found on his cell phone

Ali and others referenced the tragic fire at Notre Dame when encouraging people 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.

The world watched in horror Monday as live video feeds showed the blaze that decimated the cathedral’s wooden roof and toppled its spire. Parisians gathered to pray and sing hymns in the streets as rescue workers and the public rushed to save relics and other valuables from the burning structure.

Investigators believe the fire was an accident linked to renovation work. Bishop Patrick Chauvet, the cathedral’s rector, said the famed monument would be closed for five to six years for repairs, even as French President Emmanuel Macron publicly stated he wanted the building re-opened within five years.

Corporations, billionaires and the public have already pledged over $1 billion to rebuild the storied cathedral.

Lafayette resident Megan Romer tweeted her sadness over the cathedral's destruction and encouraged would-be donors to put their money closer to home.

"If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish," Romer wrote.

Former Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also used Notre Dame to draw attention to the Louisiana churches 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.

The largest donation in the campaign so far was a $50,000 gift from philanthropist Robert Smith, according to Ali. A billionaire philanthropist by the name Robert F. Smith was named the wealthiest black American by Forbes in 2018.

Smith was followed by a $20,000 donation in the name of Chrissy Teigen from an account under the name Izabela Sloma -- the same name of the founder of a Chicago-based real estate group. Teigen retweeted Ali's thread to her following of more than $11 million earlier in the week.

Entrepreneur and donor Susie Tompkins Buell also agreed to donate $5,000 for every $50,000 donated up to a total of $25,000, according to Ali.

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 large donations were joined by thousands of small donations from average people in all 50 states and 40 countries and territories, an update from GoFundMe’s regional communications director Aja Shepherd said.

When the Rev. Gerald Toussaint of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church heard about the global response, he chuckled in awe.

“Man, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. See what God can do?” he said.

Toussaint said the last several weeks have been rough on him and his congregation even though their faith endures.

“This puts some light in the darkness,” he said.


Follow Katie Gagliano on Twitter, @katie_gagliano.