Holden Matthews’ short, failed life of crime ended with a spate of guilty pleas delivered in state and federal court this week. Now he awaits sentencing — probably stiff — for his crimes.
Guilty of three counts of intentional damage to religious property, a hate crime under federal law. Guilty of one count of using fire to commit a felony. Guilty of three state hate crimes, two counts of arson of a religious building and a count of aggravated arson of a religious building. It's a shameful record.
An attorney for Matthews, 22, will contend before a judge in May that the young man has the social and mental development of an adolescent, that he was seeking credibility within an online community that embraced “black metal” music, the roots of which extend back 30 years.
Black metal music is virulently anti-Christian and members of the three historic black churches in St. Landry Parish — Mount Pleasant Baptist Church on La. 182, Greater Union Baptist Church on La. 742 and St. Mary’s Baptist off La. 103 — are unabashed in their deep beliefs. Their expressions of Christian faith would be anathema to many black metal adherents.
Church burnings were part of how black metal enthusiasts expressed themselves criminally in Europe during the second wave of the genre in the 1990s. Varg Vikernes, notorious within the black metal movement, was convicted of killing a fellow musician and burning three churches in 1994.
Matthews’ actions don’t speak to the character of a stable, grown man. His attorney suggested Matthews is merely a “copycat.” But most convicted criminals have character defects. Punishment is for the court to sort out.
Copycat or not, the outcome of Matthews’ crimes left devastating outcomes to the three victim churches, whose congregations did no apparent harm to him. In the wake of the church burnings, which all occurred within 10 days in spring 2019, people of goodwill, here and elsewhere, responded in generous fashion, contributing to funds to rebuild the churches. It won’t replace these congregations’ revered places of worship, but it will give them church homes. Vice President Mike Pence showed the flag of a better nation with his visit.
Sheryl Richard, a member of Greater Union Baptist, attended Matthews’ plea hearing and expressed some encouragement that he acknowledged his crimes. “As believers in Christ,” she said, “We have to find forgiveness in somebody acknowledging that they are guilty.” She said her former pastor would have prayed for Matthews’ faith conversion.
Matthews would do well to seek another, wiser path. The one he followed last spring took him nowhere good.